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222-Tiny Vampires: Understanding Mosquitoes & Effective Mosquito Control

| Podcast, Prepare

When we talk about pest control in gardens, we think about the insects that want to eat our vegetables and ornamentals, but there is a major pest that wants to feed on gardeners themselves — the mosquito.  For a better understanding of mosquitoes and effective mosquito control, my guest this week, Raven Forrest Fruscalzo of the podcast “Tiny Vampires,” is here to share the vetted facts and dispel misconceptions.

Raven is a South Florida native who now lives in the state of Washington, where she is a freelance science communicator for public health agencies, medical science and entomology. She believes a more scientifically literate public creates a healthier society. To that end, she translates scientific information into conversational, story-based podcasts. In “Tiny Vampires,” she explains all about mosquitos and other blood-sucking ​​arthropods in response to listener questions. 

 

Raven Forrest Fruscalzo

Raven Forrest Fruscalzo is the producer and host of “Tiny Vampires,” a podcast on blood-sucking arthropods, and a freelance science communicator. (Photo: Courtesy of Raven Forrest Fruscalzo)

 

Raven holds a Master of Science in biology from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. It was while she was a Ph.D. candidate at Notre Dame that she began podcasting. The Zika virus was emerging as a public health concern, and she was a mosquito researcher who was interested in science communication. “I was hearing a lot of misinformation and confusion by the public and by the media about vector-borne diseases in general and especially mosquitoes in particular,” she recalls. 

There was a lot of fundamental misunderstanding of basic mosquito biology, Raven says, so she sought to better inform the public through the medium of podcasts. Her university helped her launch her podcast, and she decided to leave her Ph.D. program to become a full-time science communicator. 

Raven wanted to base the podcast on what the public wants to know. “A lot of science communication is scientists or science writers guessing as to what the public wants to know about,” she says. But when she tells non-scientists that she studies mosquitoes, they ask all sorts of questions she never would have guessed. It’s those unexpected questions that her podcast answers, and she explains how scientists were able to figure out those answers. Each episode also shares how the general public can practically use the information.

Mosquito Bites Affect People Differently

Allergic reactions to mosquito bites vary from person to person. Raven, like me, is mostly unbothered by mosquitoes. Even when she is bitten, she doesn’t get the itchy rash that is associated with mosquito bites. She remembers watching hundreds of Anopheles gambiae — the mosquito that can transmit malaria and almost exclusively feeds on humans — bite her arm in a lab, and they barely left a mark. Meanwhile, Raven’s husband breaks out in hives from one bite.

How Our Microbiomes Make Us a Target for Mosquitoes

Our skin is covered in bacteria — the good, the bad, the ugly, Raven says. Certain bacteria release volatile compounds that attract specific mosquito species. One colony of bacteria can be very attractive to the mosquitoes in Florida while it’s not attractive at all to the mosquitoes in Alaska. So that’s why you couldn’t get bit up in one place and left alone in another, even if both places have large mosquito populations. 

The microbiome can also be affected by diet, so what you eat on a particular day may make you more attractive to mosquitoes. 

One experiment Raven cites involved asking the participants to wear the same pairs of socks for a week without washing them. Then the volatile compounds were rubbed off the socks and onto glass beads so scientists could test how attracted the mosquitoes would be to high volumes of those compounds. Whether being freshly showered keeps mosquitoes at bay is still an open question.

Mosquitoes & Carbon Dioxide 

Another way mosquitoes find people to bite is by detecting the carbon dioxide that we breathe out. However, they must be fairly close by because they aren’t smelling the CO, they are tasting it, Raven points out. The mosquitoes use their gustatory receptors (that are on tongues) instead of olfactory receptors  (that are in noses).

There are mosquito traps that use CO as bait, but they will only attract mosquitoes from a short distance. 

Raven points out that mosquito traps used by mosquito control departments catch pounds of mosquitoes in a night, but the traps are not for control. Those traps exist to capture mosquitoes to test them for diseases. They don’t even put a dent in the mosquito population.

The Ecological Importance of Mosquitoes

Believe it or not, mosquitoes have some redeeming qualities. Raven doesn’t have any hesitations about eradicating the diseases that mosquitoes transmit, but eliminating mosquitoes themselves is a different question.

Mosquitoes’ primary ecological value is to the food chain. For instance, dragonfly larvae eat mosquito larvae, and then the adult dragonflies go on to control other insect populations. Up the food chain, bats eat dragonflies. Some birds, such as purple martins and hummingbirds, love to eat mosquitoes.

And while mosquitoes are thought to survive off blood, that is not the whole story. It’s only the females that suck blood (so they have the fats and proteins needed to produce eggs), while both males and females feed on nectar as their primary source of energy. As nectar feeders, mosquitoes are pollinators, though we avoid staying outside and being in the garden at dawn and dusk while mosquitoes are most active, so we never get to observe mosquitoes on flowers eating nectar.

The disease-carrying capacity of mosquitoes is also important as they control mice, deer and other populations.

 

Bee on a flower

Just like this bee, mosquitoes are pollinators that feed on nectar. (Photo: Raven Forrest Fruscalzo)

 

Mosquito-Borne Diseases Affecting Humans

Malaria has been eradicated from the United States but kills millions of people globally each year. Yellow fever likewise is not found in the United States but is responsible for tens of thousands of deaths annually worldwide. And then there’s ​​Dengue fever, which kills hundreds each year.

Yellow fever is a virus preventable by a vaccine, while malaria is a parasite with a vaccine that just became available a few months ago. There is no vaccine for Dengue fever, which is nicknamed “breakbone fever” because it can cause muscles to cramp so much that bones break. Dengue is actually worse upon the second infection, unlike most diseases, which provide some immunity after a first infection is fought off.

In the United States, mosquitoes are controlled over Dengue and Zika concerns, as well as West Nile virus, St. Louis encephalitis and eastern equine encephalitis. None have vaccines available. 

 

standing water

Working with your neighbors to watch for and manage standing water in your area can drastically reduce the number of mosquitoes on your property — reducing the risk of contracting a mosquito-borne disease.
(Photo: Courtesy of Raven Forrest Fruscalzo)

 

Mosquito-Control Districts & Public Health Organizations

Because many mosquito-borne diseases in the United States are transmitted from birds to people via mosquito bites, some mosquito control districts place cages around the district with chickens inside them. By drawing blood from the chickens, they can detect if a mosquito-borne disease is circulating in that area. The chickens act as canaries in a coal mine. Then instead of spraying an entire city all the time, the use of pesticides for mosquito control can be limited to where it is needed.

As a kid in Miami, I would run behind the mosquito fogger truck, disappearing in a cloud of who knows what. I would also climb trees when planes fogged the streets. I’m still standing today, decades later, but we know a lot more now about pesticides and the danger of exposure. Fog applications are also more precise today in terms of how the fog lands and spreads.

Raven says that in Florida in those days, prior to 1972, those trucks were likely spraying DDT. In fact, dousing neighborhoods in DDT is one of the ways that yellow fever and malaria were eradicated from the United States. The planes may have been applying DDT or malathion. 

DDT was associated with patriotism in the years after World War II because it was used to keep our troops healthy and our victory gardens pest-free, Raven says. “It was often over and over again touted as being very safe by the manufacturers and by the general media.” But even then the scientists said they only tolerated the threat of the chemical because it was considered less devastating than the threats it conquered. Back then polio was also thought to be spread by flies, so that misconception worked in DDT’s favor as well.

When the threats went away, the public finally took a hard look at DDT and its consequences. Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” published in 1962, called attention to how chemicals were adversely affecting the environment, such as DDT’s negative effect on peregrine falcon populations. And DDT is persistent: It’s still being found in fish in Washington State.

Today’s Public Health Mosquito Sprays

Today, many vector control operations use pyrethroids, which are synthetic versions of the natural pesticide pyrethrum. Pyrethrum is derived from chrysanthemum flowers and feverfew, while pyrethroids are manufactured. 

The nozzles on modern mosquito foggers make the droplets of the spray very, very tiny, so they stick to mosquito wings well and not as well to other insects. Applications are also timed to when mosquitoes are most active. So for instance, Culex mosquitoes bite in the evening and the morning, when native bees are less active. However, Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which are causing issues in California right now, are daytime biters.

Aerial applications are also more precise than they once were. Planes now use just a sugar packet’s worth of pesticide over an acre in closely monitored applications. 

Sometimes vector control specialists will use backpack devices to target specific areas. However, the companies that perform these services privately will often spray an entire yard indiscriminately with no regard for when the pollinators are most active. Raven notes that it’s always best to call your local health department and ask for a free service before enlisting a private company.

Mid-day applications are basically a waste of money anyway because the mosquitoes are elsewhere at that time, hiding under leaves in the woods rather than hanging in your yard. Plus, the broad-spectrum pesticides, even the “natural” ones, will kill many non-target, beneficial insects.

Another strategy used today is to rotate the pesticides used so the mosquito populations don’t develop a resistance to any control method.

 

pet peeve mosquito spray

Hire one of those mosquito spray companies and you can say goodbye to your lady beetles. Although companies might tout their product as all-natural or eco-friendly, pay attention to the details.

 

Biological Controls for Mosquitoes

The aptly named mosquitofish is effective at controlling mosquito larvae. Some public health agencies are distributing these fish to homeowners who are no longer maintaining their pools. When added to stagnant pool water or a pond, the fish make quick work of mosquito larvae.

Some public health organizations also distribute Mosquito Dunks, which contain Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis, or Bti, a type of bacteria that kills mosquito larvae. Mosquito Dunks and Mosquito Bits are available to anyone to add to stagnant water anywhere, and it is safe around pets and humans.

 

mosquito pest control

Bti mosquito dunks are a great option for standing water, such as bird feeders, rain barrels or small ponds.

 

Using Insect Repellent

An insect repellant spray containing DEET will last for eight hours or even longer. If you choose to use a natural repellent product, such as citronella and lemongrass, Raven advises reapplying once every three hours to stay protected from mosquito bites.

 

Mosquito testing in a jar

Raven excels are breaking down complicated scientific information into something that’s easy for the layperson to understand.
(Photo: Courtesy of Raven Forrest Fruscalzo)

 

I hope you learned something about safe and responsible mosquito control and how to better protect yourself. If you haven’t listened to this episode yet, you can do so now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title. 

What unanswered questions do you have about mosquito control? Let us know in the comments below.

Links & Resources

Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.

Episode 049: When Good Bugs Eat Bad Bugs: The Business of Beneficial Insects

Episode 050: Organic Pest Control: Beneficial Insects And Beyond

Episode 067: Predatory Beneficial Insects: Feared Foes of Garden Pests, Pt. 1

Episode 068: Top Predatory Beneficial Insects and How to Attract Them

Episode 195: Identifying and Controlling Garden Pests Organically

Episode 219: Troublesome Garden Pests: Organic Control Strategies That Work

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joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Tomato expert Craig LeHoullier joins me in leading this course on how to grow healthier, productive tomato plants and how to overcome tomato-growing challenges. 

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About Joe Lamp'l

Joe Lamp’l is the creator and “joe” behind joe gardener®. His lifetime passion and devotion to all things horticulture has led him to a long-time career as one of the country’s most recognized and trusted personalities in organic gardening and sustainability. That is most evident in his role as host and creator of Emmy Award-winning Growing a Greener World®, a national green-living lifestyle series on PBS currently broadcasting in its tenth season. When he’s not working in his large, raised bed vegetable garden, he’s likely planting or digging something up, or spending time with his family on their organic farm just north of Atlanta, GA.

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