The biggest thing that sucks about studying mosquitoes

cameronwebb_mosquitoes_theleaderI enjoy studying mosquitoes but there is one problem. They don’t take summer holidays and, unfortunately, neither do I.

I started studying mosquitoes in the summer of 1994-1995. Within days of finishing my BSc(Hons) degree I was looking down a microscope trying to identify mosquitoes. I haven’t had a summer holiday since. That’s 20 years. Yep, 20 years without an Australian summer holiday. It never really bothered me. That was, until my children started school.

Summer school holidays are busy, expensive and probably pretty stressful times but a few weeks by the beach sounds pretty to me. Long summer days spent on the beach and in the surf. Yep, sounds pretty good. I’m even happy to put up with some sweaty shopping centre crowds en-route to the beachside holiday!

There are a lot of things about studying mosquitoes that can be unpleasant. Sticking your arm in a cage of mosquitoes and letting a few dozen mozzies feed on your blood isn’t fun. Neither is sloshing about in wetlands when the temperature tops 40°C. Mud, spider webs and getting spooked by snakes (and the occasional angry magpie) keeps the work day interesting too. Pre-dawn starts and post-dusk finishes can be exhausting but there are also some fringe benefits. Notwithstanding the occasional onslaught of biting mosquitoes (the kind of waves of swarming mozzies that drive you back into the car within seconds of stepping out), it can be beautiful being in the wetlands. I also feel I’m making a contribution to improving public health. KooragangIslandSunriseMosquitoes, and the tides and rainfall that drive their populations, don’t take a break on weekends or during the festive season. From mid October through to the end of April I’m pretty much “on call”. Weekly monitoring of environmental conditions and surveillance of mosquito populations in multiple locations throughout the state can get a little draining.

When we’re coordinating mosquito control activities, where there’s only a small window of opportunity to effectively treat wetlands, skipping a day of field work because its the weekend can have significant “knock on”effects. I need to keep my eye on the mozzies. I’ve been out in the field on Christmas Day and New Years Day. I’ve heard the distant rumble from the Big Day Out while doing mosquito surveys in the wetlands of Sydney Olympic Park on Australia Day. There have been times when I’ve felt like the only person working as I chase mosquitoes in coastal towns during the summer holidays (with apologies to the local fish and chip shop owners who, I suspect, work a lot harder than me!). xmastreesaleFunnily enough, I never really worried about missing out on summer holidays. Despite growing up spending every school holiday (and lots of weekends in between) at our family holiday house on the south coast of NSW (sadly not in the family anymore), adjusting to life studying mosquitoes and working through the summer months wasn’t so bad. I still love it. It takes me to some unusual places and I get to see a side of the Australian environment many actively avoid (they’re missing out). It wasn’t until my daughter started school that reality hit. That first summer school holiday period left me with a feeling of melancholy. As those holidays quickly approach again, I’m reflecting on my own childhood memories, and the current absence, of summer holidays. Not just for me but also my kids. It would be nice to be planning a family summer holiday. summer_rockpoolsIt isn’t just the holidays themselves. As most people seem to be winding down towards Christmas, I’m increasing the workload. Oh how I wish the last few days before a holiday were filled with “pointless busy work”….just like the last few days of school. A few lazy days of desk cleaning and book shelf sorting wouldn’t be so bad. I’ve been stretched during December. Notwithstanding the routine field work, this summer has been plagued by unusual rainfall and tide patterns that have had me out in the field more than usual. This is coupled with some major manuscripts due early in the new year that have had me up late most nights.

Normally, I wouldn’t mind skipping late night shopping and carols by candlelight or slow drives down streets full of Christmas lights. Thing is, my kids love it and I want to share their excitement! I’ve found myself having the weigh up the benefits of having a manuscript reviewed on time or singing jingle bells with the family in the local park. Not something I considered when embarking on a career in medical entomology.

This all leads to my 2015 new years resolution. Perhaps I need to learn to say no more often. Take on fewer projects. Don’t say yes so often. Plan my time a little better and not end the year with so much to get done. I wonder how that will work out next year? If you’re an ecologist, entomologist or fish and chip shop owner, how do you deal with working through the holidays? Join the conversation on Twitter.

— The photo at the top of this post is taken from the 2014 article, “More mosquitoes on the way” that appeared in the St George and Sutherland Shire Leader January 2014. —

Why are mosquitoes so bad this summer?

Swarms of mosquitoes are descending on Sydney. It’s been one of the worst starts to summer for pesky mozzies and it’s only going to get worse.

Mosquitoes need water and there’s been plenty of it. Water filling up our wetlands or backyard buckets provides habitat for mosquitoes. Warm humid weather also helps keep mosquitoes alive longer. That’s right, there are more mosquitoes and they’re living longer!


The saltmarsh mosqutio, Aedes vigilax, is closely associated with tidally influenced estuarine wetlands along most of Australia’s coast (image: Stephen Doggett)

Predicting boosts in mosquito numbers isn’t always easy. The reason is that mosquitoes respond to the pattern of rainfall, not just the quantity.

Rain, Rain, Rain

We’ve had over 160mm of rain in Sydney in just the first 10 days of December. The long-term average is 70mm. It is when this rain is falling that makes the difference. If we’d had it all over a couple of days, there would have been one hatch of mosquitoes. Just one generation of adults buzzing about. Problem is we’ve had steady rain. It’s been spread out and so have been the hatches of mosquitoes. It keeps the wetlands flooded too so any wrigglers that have hatched from eggs won’t be stranded in a drying puddle.


Total daily rainfall recorded at Sydney Olympic Park (Data source: Bureau of Meteorology)

The rain is one thing but tides play a role too. While backyard mozzies rely on rainfall, our biggest nuisance biting pest, the saltmarsh mosquito (Aedes vigilax), relies on a combination of rainfall and tidal flooding of local wetlands. Funnily enough, they generally love a hot dry summer.

Swimming with the tide

In a cruel twist of fate, we’ve had tidal flooding of local wetlands at the same time as all the rain. The tides were nothing compared to the “king tides” we experienced last summer but, in combination with the rain, it resulted in complete flooding of our local estuarine wetlands. Maximum occupancy for mosquitoes.

Current monitoring along the east coast, particularly in areas close to estuarine wetlands, are recording above average numbers of mosquitoes. The collections are currently dominated by saltmarsh mosquitoes but there are plenty of “backyard” mozzies too. The current generation of mosquitoes was triggered by environmental factors in mid to late November.

Problem is, we’re going to see more as the next generation is currently wriggling about in our wetlands and backyard habitats. They’ll be emerging over the next few days….

While the current rain and tides are playing their part, something happened way back in October that set the wheels in motion for the marauding mozzies.

Springing into Summer

The hottest spring on record set the scene. Then, around the middle of October, there was about 100mm of rain that followed a few days after a series of higher than expected tides. Historically, regardless of rain, tides or temperature, there is rarely a substantial increase in mosquitoes. This year was different. it was a perfect storm of climatic conditions that “woke up” local mosquito populations a month or so early.

The early start to the season took everyone by surprise. The state-wide mosquito monitoring program generally only kicks off in coastal areas in December and there has never been any mosquito control in local wetlands in October. While I was filming a piece for Chanel 9 News along the banks of the Parramatta River, we were eaten alive by mozzies. I’d never seen so many that early in the season.

henandchickenbay_stormfrontMy experience in the past is that once mosquito populations gain some momentum, only an extended hot and dry period will slow them down. Each mosquito can lay up to (or beyond) 100 eggs. The more mosquitoes, the more eggs. The more eggs, the more mosquitoes. The cycle continues. The short-term forecasts are for  warm and humid weather along with continuing storms. Unfortunately, there may not be a break from mosquitoes for a while yet.

What can you do the beat the bite?

Here are five tips that will help beat the mozzie bites this summer.

1. Tip out, drain or cover any water-holding containers in the backyard. They may be buckets, discarded tyres or a taupaulin covering an old trailer or boat. Anything that collects water can be used by mosquitoes. Make sure your rainwater tank is correctly screened and your roof gutters are clean and free-flowing.

2. Screen your windows. This may not help when you’re outside but it will at least stop them coming inside. If you live near wetlands, give some serious thought to creating a screened outdoor area. There are lots of flexible screening options available. This is common place in some parts of North America and Europe, I don’t know why we don’t do it more of ten here in Australia.

3. Cover up or wear repellent. If you’re outdoors, particularly at dawn or dusk, cover up with long sleeved shirts and long pants. Pale colours tend not to attract so many mosquitoes. Apply repellent to any exposed areas of skin. There are lots of tips on using repellents here and here and here.

4. Sprays and coils and sticks and zappers. There are plenty of products available that contain insecticides. Aerosol “fly sprays” will help get rid of a mozzie buzzing about indoors but the better option are the “plugin” zappers that heat a small reservoir of insecticide. These are very effective and safer to use indoors than burning a mosquito coil. Mozzie coils and sticks should only be burnt outdoors or in sheltered areas. Pick a product that contains an insecticide. The botanical (e.g. citronella) based products will hep reduce the total number of bites but not prevent them all.

5. Listen out for warnings. Stay tuned to local radio, or keep your eye on the website of local health authorities. Mosquito bites can be pretty annoying but there is also concern regarding mosquito-borne diseases, particularly those such as Ross River virus. There is a number of state-based surveillance programs in place and warnings are often issued when elevated levels of pathogen activity is detected in local mosquitoes or there is an increase in human disease reported.

Join the conversation on Twitter. Is this the worst summer for mosquitoes in your part of Australia?



The five best non-buggy things about Entomology 2014

portland_oldtownThere was lots of love about Entomology 2014 but some of the biggest highlights had nothing to do with the bugs. Here are some non-entomological hits from the conference.

1. Portland, OR.

Host city makes a difference. I know many considerations are taken into account when deciding on a venue but an interesting host city (or region) can really tip the scales. Portland was a great decision. One of the great things about Portland was that it provided many conversation starters. Tips on where to find the best coffee, craft beer and donuts dominated plenty of on- and offline conversations during the course of the meeting (plus a few “field trips” thrown in for good measure).

I’ve seen interesting/new locations boost the numbers of conference attendees for the Australian Entomological Society and Mosquito Control Association of Australia in recent years too.

bluestardonuts2. Free public transport

Brilliant. With the meeting attracting over 3,000 people, it wasn’t possible to hold the event at a single venue that also provided accommodation for the bulk of attendees. As everyone was spread out across the city, getting back and forth from the Oregon Convention Center could have been quite tricky. Portland has a great public transport network but, better still, conference registrants received a free pass for travel throughout the course of the meeting! It certainly took the stress out of getting around.

sizzlepie3. Promotion of social media

The Entomological Society of America really needs to be congratulated on the way they’re employed social media as a critical component of their scientific conferences. I’ve been to conferences where social media has been tolerated but rarely encouraged. At this meeting, social media use was integrated into the day-to-day conference experience.

There was promotion of #EntSoc14 before, during and after the meeting. From the registration website to the opening address by David Gammel, social media was embraced and encouraged. Probably the best element was the use of a series of large screens throughout the conference center with a cascade of twitter and instagram posts. There was even a large display in the trade hall! Wonderful idea because it brought the “non-tweeting” conference attendees into the mix. I had a few a few conversations with people who don’t use social media but tracked me down because they’d seen tweets on the screen earlier in the meeting.


An example of the “social media screens” dotted throughout the conference venue (Source: Christie Bahlai ‏@cbahlai)

Having an opportunity to meet in real life many of the wonderful people I’d only ever corresponded with via social media was one fo the highlights of the conference.

I was tempted to post something about tweeting at conference but there are already a bunch of great resources on the use of social media during conferences. Here are just a few “How to live-tweet a conference: A guide for conference organizers and twitter users“, “A Guide to Tweeting at Scientific Meetings for Social Media Veterans” and “Ten Simple Rules of Live Tweeting at Scientific Conferences“.

Here are the key slides (plus a bonus) from my conference presentation on the use of social media to extend the reach of public health messages:

4. Free WiFi

Whether we like it or not, we’re tethered to work. I learned a valuable lesson this year when I took myself “off the grid” for a few weeks during a holiday break. It took me the best part of a month to catch up. Being able to regularly check in with work emails during a conference (without having to pay exorbitant access rates) really helps. It is also handy chasing up papers referenced in presentations and other resources shared throughout the conference.

I know it is no fun seeing a conference room full of people checking email during someone’s presentation and I personally don’t do it myself. However, there were plenty of places and spaces to sit down and do that outside the presentation rooms.

5. A sustainable conference venue

I know this isn’t always possible but having a conference venue that put a high priority on sustainability was great. From recycling of coffee cups to stormwater runoff, most of the bases were covered. Nice for me, given my interest in constructed wetlands and stormwater management, to see the systems in place at the Oregon Conference Center.

Oregonconvention_urbanstormwaterTo some, these may seem like trivial aspects of a major scientific conference but they really made for a great experience at Entomology 2014 for me.

What do you love (or loathe) about scientific conferences (beyond the science itself)? Join the conversation on Twitter.