The annoyance of itchy mosquito bites is one of the few downfalls of playing outside in the summer. Its the buzzing swarm of mosquitoes that forces us to spray sticky repellents on our skin, that send us running indoors at sunset. While most people view mosquito bites nothing more than an irritating fact of life, others have learned that mosquitoes can be quite terrifying. According to insects.about.com, more deaths are associated with mosquitoes than any other animal on the planet. This is because they may carry any number of diseases from malaria to yellow or dengue fever. They may even carry heart-worm, a disease that is fatal to your dog (insects.about.com). We will take a look at why mosquitoes bite people, why their bites are so harmful, and what you can do to protect yourself.
Humans are not typically a mosquito’s first choice for a meal. They prefer to feast on horses, cattle and birds (lessonpaths.com). However, blood is blood and the female needs to eat. Yes, it is only the females who drink your blood. The male mosquito prefers flower nectar, but the female mosquito needs the protein in our blood if she hopes to properly develop and lay her eggs (insects.about.com). Now some people draw the short straw and are attacked by mosquitoes more often. Maybe you come inside and your ankles are sprinkled with new itchy bumps, while your friends are completely untouched. Scientists have discovered a few factors that leave some people more at risk of being bitten. According to an article by Joseph Stromberg on smithsonian.com, “One study found that in a controlled setting, mosquitoes landed on people with type O blood nearly twice as often as those with type A.” Unfortunately, if you have type O blood, you can take precaution against mosquitoes, but you may not find much relief. Stromberg goes on to say that “Mosquitoes are also more attracted to people who are sweating and exercising outdoors because of the increase in body temperature and lactic acid.” The lactic acid seeps through your pores and sends a tempting chemical signal to mosquitoes. Mosquitoes can be truly merciless, going so far as targeting mothers-to-be, “Pregnant women were found to attract roughly twice as many mosquitoes. This is likely because they exhale 21% more carbon dioxide and are on average about 1.26 degrees Fahrenheit warmer” (Stromberg, smithsonian.com). Luckily, Mr. Stromberg does offer one more piece of advice. There is one major factor to mosquito attraction that we can control and it might be something that has never occurred to you before. According to Stromberg, mosquitoes use vision, along with scent to locate humans. Therefore, wearing colors that stand out, such as black, dark blue, or red, could make you a bigger target (Stromberg, smithsonian.com). Understanding whether or not you may be irresistible to a hungry mosquito is the first step to protection. So, if you have type O blood, for example, you may want to use a little extra repellent when you step outside.
Mosquitoes make other mosquitoes, FAST
One factor in particular that make mosquitoes such a menace is how often they successfully breed. The American Mosquito Control Association provides and in-depth look at the process of mosquito reproduction. It starts with the mosquito eggs floating on the water. They can either be floating together as ‘rafts’ or separately, one by one.
Next is the larva stage. The larvae shed their skin four times and grow bigger after each time. Most of the larvae have a siphon tube for breathing, which they use to hang upside down from the surface of the water. The pupal stage is basically a resting stage. It is akin to the metamorphosis stage experienced by butterflies. When this stage is complete, the pupal skin splits open and the adult emerges. The adult must give itself time for all of its body parts to harden. They are then ready for blood feeding and mating. This information and the chart featured here can be found at www.mosquito.org, provided by the American Mosquito Control Association.
All mosquitoes, require water to breed. Just a few inches of water is required for the female to deposit her eggs. Mosquito larvae develop quickly in bird baths and roof gutters (insects.about.com). It should be noted that mosquitoes can be very adaptive. According to National Geographic, a few species, including the Eastern Salt Marsh Mosquito, lay their eggs in soil or mud, where they stay dormant until a high tide or enough rain comes along for them to hatch. In these cases, dormancy can last as long as five years (natgeo.com). Mosquitoes live between 2 weeks and 6 months and usually grow to be the size of a paper clip (lessonpaths.com).
Mixing up mosquitoes with other pests
There are a couple different insects that are often mistaken for mosquitoes, namely the crane fly and the biting midge. Crane flies are sometimes called ‘gullynippers’ and ‘mosquito hawks’. Their larvae live in loose soil or organic matter and feed on the roots of plants (mosquito.org). Some species of crane flies emerge from aquatic sources and others from terrestrial or decaying vegetation. They are not known to bite humans at all (mosquito.org). They are often mistaken for mosquitoes based on their physical appearance – they have narrow bodies, long legs and a distinct pair of wings. According to the American Mosquito Control Association, “Midges are the most widespread and numerous insects resembling mosquitoes. The adults are usually seen flying in swarms or ‘clouds’, or resting on fences and walls. They develop in moist soil, lakes and slow moving rivers. The males come together in mating swarms to attract females. These swarms listen for sounds of a female approaching in order to make their move. Because of their intense sensitivity to sound, you can often see erratic changes in the swarm in response to something as simple as a handclap”(mosquito.org). Biting midges are more worrisome than crane flies simply because they bite people, inflicting minor pain. According to Larry Caplan of the Evansville Courier & Press, “Biting midges are extremely annoying, but none are known to spread disease to humans in the U.S. The bites inflict a burning sensation and can cause different reactions in humans, ranging from a small reddish welt at the bite site to local allergic reactions that cause significant itching” (courierpress.com). It is not so much that biting midges look like mosquitoes, it is that their bites may be confused with those of a mosquito.
Why does it itch?
We understand that mosquitoes are annoying because of those little red bumps they leave behind, but why are those bumps so itchy to begin with? According to Ann Pietrangelo’s article “Mosquito Bites: From Annoying to Deadly”, “ When a mosquito bites, it injects saliva into the skin as it siphons blood. The saliva contains proteins that most people are allergic to. Your immune system springs into action, causing the tell tale red bump and accompanying itch.” The thought of mosquito spit entering our bloodstream is nasty enough, but for many people around the world, itchy skin is least of their mosquito related problems. “Mosquitoes transmit malaria to 200 million people around the world each year, and mosquito borne diseases have killed more people than all the wars in history. HIV and hepatitis cannot be transmitted through mosquitos” (Pientrangelo, Ann). Yes, it is a comfort to know that HIV and hepatitis cannot be transmitted through mosquitoes, especially since they are deadly conditions that are typically spread through the sharing of blood and other bodily fluids, but lets take a moment to absorb this. Mosquitoes have killed more people than ALL the wars in history – not just American wars, not just the World Wars, but every war in recorded history.According to the Mayo Clinic, “The mosquito obtains a virus by biting an infected person or animal. Then, when biting you, the mosquito can transfer that virus or parasite to you through its saliva. West Nile and encephalitis are found in the U.S.” (mayoclinic.org). At this point, most people in the U.S. have heard of West Nile, but may be unclear as to what it is exactly. According to cnn.com, “Symptoms of West Nile infection include: fatigue, fever, headache, body aches, rash and swollen lymph nodes. Those who become ill may develop West Nile encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain. […] More than 1,700 people have died of West Nile virus in the United States since it was first detected in New York City in 1999.” Mosquitoes pose a lethal threat not only to us human beings, but to our best friends as well. They carry parasitic heartworms that can can wreak havoc with the health of our dogs. “It takes 6 to 7 months after an infected mosquito bites a dog before the larvae develop into adult worms and are present in the heart and lungs where they cause severe disturbance to function. […] The adult worms lodge themselves in the heart, lungs, and surrounding blood vessels and begin reproducing. Dogs may go into heart failure and marked coughing and loss of health are common. Dogs with very light infestations may be free of symptoms” (dogheirs.com). In order to protect yourself against mosquitoes, you should appreciate just how dangerous they can be. Today, it is just an itchy bump on your arm, tomorrow could be something much worse.
– Alex Wild, www.animals.io9.com
What should I do to protect myself against mosquitoes?
There are steps that can be taken by government and by individuals to reduce the number of mosquitoes and the minimize the spread of disease. Lets start by looking at steps your government may already be taking. “Mosquito control nowadays has a battery of weapons, including habitat reduction […] and natural larvicides” (natgeo.com). As we’ve already learned, mosquitoes need water to breed, therefore habitat reduction usually means reducing the amount of standing water in a given area. This is something that can be done in private residences by homeowners. For example, if you have a bird bath in the back yard, consider only filling it with water once per week, or at least changing out the water every day. Larvicides, on the other hand, tend to be distributed by state and local governments. “Larvicides are products used to kill immature mosquitoes before they become adults. They can be either biological (such as toxin from specific bacteria that is lethal to mosquito larvae but not to other organisms) or chemical products such as insect growth regulators […] Larvicides are applied directly to water sources that hold mosquito eggs, larvae or pupae” (cdc.gov).
There are small steps you can do to protect yourself. Mosquitoes are most active at sunrise and sunset, so if you are outside during this time, it is wise to wear some kind of bug repellent spray. Avoid going in grassy areas within 24 hours after a heavy rain and try, whenever possible to wear closed toed shoes and socks to protect your feet and ankles from multiple bites. You can even plant certain flowers around your home to deter mosquitoes from pestering you at all. Janice Taylor provides multiple options in her article “11 Plants that Repel Mosquitoes”. It is common knowledge that citronella is a popular ingredient found in most mosquito repellents. According to Ms. Taylor, “Citronella is a beautiful perennial clumping grass that emits a strong aroma. That aroma masks other scents and keeps mosquitoes from being attracted to the living organisms surrounding it. You can grow citronella in pots and place it around the porch or patio where there may be mosquito activity.” Janice Taylor also recommends planting flowers whose aroma we find delightful, but mosquitoes find repulsive, such as marigold and lavender. These sound like small steps, but if there are no mosquitoes buzzing around your home, there is no mosquito problem! And if you can avoid using any kind of chemical in the process, then that is a bonus.
Mosquitoes are common place and most of us interact with them on a daily basis during the summer with few repercussions. However, we cannot lose sight of the fact that mosquitoes are more than annoying, they’re dangerous. Take all the necessary precautions to protect yourself and your family now, and it could pay off down the line.
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