Are mosquitoes disappearing?

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There’s been a swarm of headlines recently about the global decline of insects. Could mosquitoes be disappearing too? Probably not but how would we know?

Recent research suggests that over 40% of insects worldwide are in decline. Some of the most vulnerable insects are those that occupy specific ecological niches. When scientists reviewed over 70 historical reports of insect declines, environmental degradation, the spread of agriculture, and widespread insecticide use were suspected for causing the decline.

What about mosquitoes? Sadly, they’re not a group of insects many people would care too much about if they were threatened with extinction.

Some of the most important mosquitoes, those that transmit dengue viruses or malaria parasites, are evading our efforts to eradicate them. For these insects, the insects authorities the world over actively are trying to kill, they’re surviving quite well. They’re becoming resistant to commonly used insecticides and they’re thriving living in habitats in and around our cities.

The reality is that some mosquitoes are probably doing very well , while those potentially under threat are probably those we know least about.

Tracking change in mosquito populations

There are over 300 mosquitoes in Australia. The mosquitoes that bring with them the greatest pest and public health risks are well studied. Mosquitoes such as Aedes camptorhynchus, Aedes vigilax, and Culex annulirostris are nuisance-biting pests and have been associated with outbreaks of Ross River virus disease. Their populations are monitored as part of mosquito control and surveillance programs around the country. But these programs probably won’t reliably pick up declines in lesser known mosquitoes.

There are mosquito surveillance programs around the country that provide information on local mosquito populations to health authorities. That’s how scientists know if this really is the “worst year for mosquitoes ever”! There is little evidence that the major pest mosquitoes are in decline. But these programs probably won’t reliably pick up declines in lesser known mosquitoes.

Mosquitoes under threat?

It is entirely possible that there are mosquitoes under threat.

What about the mosquitoes that specifically feed on frogs, how will they be impacted by declining frog populations?

Mosquitoes that are highly specialised to certain environments or ecological niches or close interactions with wildlife may struggle if their ecosystems are disrupted. Habitat degradation may hit some mosquitoes in much the same way it’ll hit other insects. It won’t end well.

What about mosquitoes associated with snow-melt pools in the Australian alps? Could climate change see their habitats destroyed?

Mosquitoes can adapt

Mosquitoes can be some of the most adaptable animals on the plant. That’s probably why they’ve been such persistent pests.

We’ve found that mosquitoes are more abundant in mangrove forests that are degraded or surrounded by industry. Some mosquitoes are even becoming resistant to commonly used insecticides. Those same issues threatening many thousands of insects are no problem for some mosquitoes.

The reality is, mosquitoes have already been around for millions of years, they’ll probably be around long after. Its just that we could take a few species with us…

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The image at the top of this article is of a carbon-dioxide baited mosquito trap, there were thousands of mosquitoes inside; collected late in 2018 along the Georges River in southern Sydney.

Join the conversation on Twitter, are there any mosquitoes you think are under threat?

 

Giant mosquitoes are invading my backyard!

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“I’ve never seen anything like it. I actually heard it before I saw it!”

I get more than a dozen emails, tweets, or phone calls every summer like this. Excited (terrified?) correspondence asking about the “giant” mosquito captured in the backyard or buzzing about windows.

Toxorhynchites speciosus is as “good” a mosquito as there can be. First, it is a gorgeous creature. Almost four times the size of a typical mosquito, it is a large dark and shiny mosquito with bright metallic patterns.

There are around 70 species of Toxorhynchites mosquitoes around the world but only a few species found in Australia. The mosquito is reasonably common, but rarely very abundant. It is found along the eastern and north coast of Australia, stretching from Sydney through to Darwin.

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The larvae of Toxorhynchites speciosus are large and easily spotted in water-holding containers around the backyard

This is one of the few mosquitoes that don’t need blood. Unlike almost all other mosquitoes, the females of which need blood to develop their eggs, Toxorhynchites speciosus doesn’t bite. It gets its energy from plant juices and nectar.

Even though it doesn’t bite, the sheer size of this mosquito makes it an imposing sight.

They most commonly lay eggs in water holding containers around the home. Pot plant saucers, bird baths, watering cans, buckets, bins and even tree holes and water-filled bromeliads. These are the same types of water-filled containers where you’ll find wrigglers of the pest mosquitoes Aedes notoscriptus and Culex quinquefasciatus.

They have a fascinating way of laying eggs. Unlike many other mosquitoes that elegantly stand on the water surface and lay up to 300 eggs in a neatly packed floating raft, Toxorhynchites lays single eggs. It  doesn’t even land on the water to lay eggs, it fires them into water while in mid flight!

Once an appropriate place to deposit an egg has been identified, the mosquito flies in a vertical loop, the loops getting ever smaller until the egg is ejected and into nearby habitats. A neat trick and avoids the risk of being eaten by a hungry spider or other predator waiting by to grab a mosquito coming in to lay eggs.

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A specimen of Toxorhynchites speciosus collected by Helen Mamas from the inner west suburb of Sydney, Newtown

Not only do these mosquitoes not bite, they even help out with a little pest mosquito control around the home.

While the mosquito wrigglers of mosquito mosquitoes feed on organic debris floating about in water bodies, the larvae of Toxorhynchites speciosus are predatory and feed on the wrigglers of other mosquitoes. Laboratory studies have shown that a closely related Toxorhnychites consumed over 300 Aedes aegypti  (aka the dengue mosquito) larvae during its development. In some parts of the world, a closely related mosquito is used as a biological control agent of the pests that spread dengue, chikungunya and Zika viruses.

While Toxorhynchites speciosus will chomp through plenty of wrigglers of Aedes notoscriptus each summer in Australian backyards, it is unlikely to make a huge difference in bites.

My experience in backyards across Sydney has shown that there is something of a tug-o-war between Toxorhynchites speciosus and other mosquitoes. While undertaking a project with Ku-ring-gai Council looking at backyard mosquitoes and their possible impact on backyard wildlife conservation efforts, I’d often find a fluctuating dynamic between the mosquito predators and their prey. Populations of Aedes notoscriptus or Culex quinquefasciatus would build up in bird baths and buckets, then Toxorhynchites speciosus would move in. They’re eat through all the other larvae, then once emerged and flown off, the other mosquitoes would move back in. And the cycle continued.

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Image of Toxorhynchites speciosus sent to be by David Lawson from the inner west suburbs of Marrickville, Sydney.

Next time you see a “giant mozzie” buzz by, think twice before you squish it. Oh, and keep in mind that this mosquito is also a movie star! Do you recognise it from Jurassic Park?

If you want to keep the pest mosquitoes out of your backyard, make sure you get rid of any water-holding containers. If you can’t throw them out, keep them covered.

Check to make sure your roof gutters and drains are clear of leaves and other debris so they flow freely. Check your rainwater tank is screened to stop the mozzies entering. And try not to kill the good guys who help keep the other mozzies at bay!

For more on how to better control insect pests in and around the home, read one of our latest publications on engaging urban stakeholders in the sustainable management of arthropod pests.

Find out more about Australia’s fascinating mosquitoes by checking out our “A Guide to Mosquitoes of Australia” via CSIRO Publishing!

 

Wetlands, climate change, and managing mosquitoes

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I’ve spent over twenty years sloshing about in wetlands around Sydney and surrounds. They’re changing. They’re changing due to shifts in climate, sea level rise, and urbanisation. The 2019 World Wetlands Day is a time to stop and reflect on the state of wetlands around the world and how we can keep them health under the threat of climate change.

World Wetlands Day is held every year on 2 February,  this day marking the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands on 2 February 1971 in Ramsar, Iran. The theme of the 2019 World Wetlands Day is “Wetlands and Climate Change” and we shouldn’t just think about the impact of climate change on wetlands but also how wetlands can help us as we face the challenges of a changing climate.

Coastal wetlands around Sydney are impacted in many ways. Mangrove forests and saltmarshes are degraded through direct and indirect human activity. There is recent research indicating that sea level rise is impacting mangroves along the Parramatta River in Sydney. This requires active management to ensure substantial degradation and die back occurs, as has been seen elsewhere in Australia.

Some of our research even suggests that degraded mangroves are more productive when it comes to mosquitoes. Effective rehabilitation of these habitats may actually reduce the mosquitoes flying out of these environments and impacting the community nearby. Similarly, urban planning should consider the risk posed by mosquitoes in wetlands adjacent to new and expanding residential developments. This includes major wetland rehabilitation projects.

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The challenges facing wetlands isn’t unique to Australia. Released in conjunction with World Wetlands Day preparations was The Global Wetland Outlook. A document that provides “a current overview of global wetlands: their extent, trends, drivers of change and the responses needed to reverse the historical decline in wetland area and quality”.

While we think of rainforests and coral reefs under greatest threat, it is a sobering thought to think that up to 87% of the global wetland resource has been lost since 1700. These are environments that were, until relatively recently, considered wastelands. With this lack of perceived value came greater susceptibility to abuse and degradation.

Along with the unsurprising loss of wetland area and decline in biodiversity associated with these environments come some interesting findings. The most interesting from a mosquito management point of view is that artificial wetlands are actually increasing in some areas. Notwithstanding an assessment of the ecosystem services they provide, they’re more likely to be closer to human habitation, so any mosquitoes associated with them may have relatively greater impact.

In recent years, the value of wetlands has increased. There is an understanding now that these environments provide critical ecosystem services. There is also a growing understanding of the wetland’s roles in mitigating the impacts of climate change. Coastal wetlands in particularly provide protection from increasingly severe storm events and trap valuable carbon stores that assist in mitigating the impacts of climate change.

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This then raises the issues of mosquitoes. Mosquitoes are a natural part of wetland ecosystems. While often their pest impacts may indicate the poor health of the wetlands, at other time, abundant mosquito populations are a natural occurrence that fluctuate in their intensity from year to year. How do best manage mosquitoes associated with these wetlands?

I’ve written about how I think mosquito control should actually be considered an important component of coastal wetland rehabilitation. How climate change may be impacting mosquito threats and that even hot and dry summers under the influence of El Nino may not necessarily mean that mosquitoes are less problematic.

Based on the experience during the 2018-2019 summer, mosquitoes seem to persist in plague proportions despite the extreme temperatures being experienced in NSW.

It is important to remember that there are many mosquito species associated with wetlands, especially freshwater habitats, that pose no substantial threat to humans. There are hundreds of mosquitoes in Australia, less than a dozen really pose a substantial pest or public health threat. Many mosquitoes may play an important ecological role in wetland ecosystems. This may include representing a locally important food source for insectivorous wildlife or possibly pollinating plants.

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A balance is required. If we’re going to continue squeezing an increasing human population into a narrow stretch of land up against the coast, there are many issues to consider here and they’re not just about how human activity is impacting those coastal wetlands. Pollution is a problem, our physical damage is another. Worst still, we’re taking away the opportunity of these normally resilient habitats to adapt to a rising sea levels and increasingly frequent storm events. Our cities and their infrastructure provide a hard and unforgiving edge against the wetlands.

Our wetlands even battle against themselves sometime. The threat of mangrove incursion into saltmarsh habitats is of increasing concern. Its counter-intuitive but perhaps we need to be pulling out mangroves to save some coastal wetlands.

Expanding, modifying, and creating new coastal wetlands will require local authorities to turn their mind to the issue of mosquitoes. Firstly, consideration needs to be given to what may constitute a tolerable level of mosquito exposure. How many mosquito bites are too many? How many cases of mosquito-borne disease are considered “normal” each year. Once these thresholds are drawn and exceeded, who is responsible for the decisions on active mosquito control? Who pays?

Another ecosystem disservice to consider is how the nuisance-biting of mosquitoes may discourage engagement with local wetlands. less engagement may mean less support for conservation and rehabilitation efforts. Less community interest, support, and activism may then result is less political drive to protect local wetlands by local authorities.

Importantly, decisions regarding the management of coastal wetlands, as well as those peppered throughout the city, need to be made with some consideration of mosquitoes and their potential impact. How do you convince the local community about the overall benefits of carbon sequestration, wildlife conservation, and protection of infrastructure is worthwhile if their quality of life is degraded through summer swarms and nuisance-biting mosquitoes?

More details on managing the risks associated with estuarine mosquitoes is provided in this book chapter included in the free Sydney Olympic Park Authority’s guide to managing urban wetlands.

For more about World Wetlands Day activities in Australia see here.

To stay up to date with my adventures in local wetlands, you can follow me on Instagram here.

 

 

 

Talking wetlands, wildlife and mosquitoes at the 2017 Australian Entomological Society Meeting

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I’ll be in Terrigal, on the NSW Central Coast, for the 2017 Australian Entomological Society conference and taking the opportunity to present a summary of a number of collaborative projects undertaken in recent years, from working out how surrounding landuse influences the mosquito populations in urban mangroves to how important mosquitoes are to the diet of local bats.

Together with a range of colleagues, I’ve been undertaking research into the factors driving mosquito and mosquito-borne disease risk in urban wetlands. It is a complex puzzle to solve with more than just mosquitoes determining local pest and public health risks. However, with outbreaks of mosquito-borne Ross River virus on the rise in recent years, including urban areas of Australia, there is a need to better understand the factors at play.

There is a range of factors that may increase the risk of Ross River virus, they include suitable wetlands, wildlife reservoirs of the pathogen and mosquitoes. Understanding the mosquitoes associated with urban estuarine and freshwater wetlands is critical.

Investigating the role of surrounding landuse in determining the mosquito communities of urban mangroves, we found that industrial and residential areas tended to increase abundance of mosquitoes, perhaps due to direct or indirect impacts on the health of those mangroves. We’ve found previously that mosquitoes problems are often associated with estuarine wetlands suffering poor health, perhaps this is determining the increased mosquito risk we identified? You can read more in our publication here.

Expanding the investigation to look at urban freshwater wetlands, it was found that there was a high degree of variability in local mosquito populations and that each wetland needed to be assessed with consideration to be given to site-specific characteristics. You can read more about our work investigating mosquito assemblages associated with urban water bodies in our publication here.

More research is underway in this field and my PhD student, Jayne Hanford, has already started collecting some fascinating data on wetland biodiversity and local mosquito populations.

While the focus of our studies is often prompted by concern about Ross River virus, interestingly, in recent years we’ve found considerable activity of Stratford virus. This is not currently considered a major human health concern but given how widespread it is, it raises concerns about the suitability of local wildlife, even in Western Sydney, to represent important reservoirs of mosquito-borne pathogens. You can read more about Stratford virus in our publication here.

The final piece of the puzzle is to understand the ecological role of mosquitoes. Where their potential health threats are deemed significant, how could management of mosquito populations have unintended consequences for other wildlife. What about the animals that eat mosquitoes? A number of years ago we did some research to determine the importance of mosquitoes in the diet of coastal bats. While there was no indication that mosquitoes are a critical component of their diet, they are still being snacked on and mosquito control programs need to consider any local ecological impacts.

Now, how am I going to squeeze all this into 15 minutes….

The presentation abstract is below:

What drives mosquito-borne disease risk in urban wetlands?

Webb, C. (1, 2), J. Hanford (3), S. Claflin (4), W. Crocker (5), K. Maute (5), K. French (5), L. Gonsalves (6) & D. Hochuli (3)

(1) Department of Medical Entomology, NSW Health Pathology, Westmead Hospital, NSW 2145; (2) Marie Bashir Institute of Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity, University of Sydney, Camperdown, NSW 2006; (3) School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Faculty of Science, The University of Sydney, Camperdown, NSW, 2006; (4) Menzies Institute for Medical Research, University of Tasmania, Hobart, TAS, 7000; (5) Centre for Sustainable Ecosystem Solutions, Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science, Medicine & Health, University of Wollongong NSW, 2522; (6) School of Arts and Sciences, Australian Catholic University, North Sydney, NSW, 2060.

Managing pest and public health risks associated with constructed and rehabilitated urban wetlands is of increasing concern for local authorities. While strategic conservation of wetlands and wildlife is required to mitigate the impacts of urbanisation and climate change, concomitant increases in mosquitoes and mosquito-borne disease outbreak risk must be addressed. However, with gaps in our understanding of the ecological role of mosquitoes, could control strategies have unintended adverse impacts on vertebrate and invertebrate communities? A series of studies were undertaken in urban wetlands of greater Sydney to investigate the role of land use, wetland type and wetland aquatic biodiversity in driving the abundance and diversity of mosquito populations. A diverse range of mosquitoes, including key pest an vector species, were found in urban environments and mosquito-borne pathogens were detected in local populations, implicating local wildlife (e.g. water birds and macropods) as potential public health risk factors. Estuarine wetlands are locally important with the percentage of residential land and bushland surrounding wetlands having a negative effect on mosquito abundance and species richness while the amount of industrial land had a significant positive effect on species richness. Mosquito control in these habitats is required but insectivorous bats were identified as mosquito predators and the indirect implications of mosquito control should be considered. The aquatic biodiversity of urban freshwater wetlands influenced the species richness of local mosquito populations indicating vegetation plays an important role in determining local pest species. However, the matrix of wetland types also influences the abundance of mosquitoes in the local area. These results demonstrate the need for site-specific investigations of mosquito communities to assist local authorities develop policies for urban development and wetland rehabilitation that balance the need for conservation with reduced public health risks.

To keep up to date on what’s happening at the conference, check out the program online or follow the conversation on Twitter.

 

Preserve and protect? Exploring mosquito communities in urban mangroves

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This is a special guest post from Dr Suzi Claflin. Suzi found herself in Sydney, Australia, (via Cornell University, USA) in 2015 to undertake a research project investigating the role of urban landscapes in determining mosquito communities associated with urban mangroves. She was kind enough to put this post together to celebrate the publication of our research in Wetlands Ecology and Management!

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Sometimes you’ve got to make hard choices for the greater good. These situations can arise anywhere, but here – as usual – we are concerned with mosquitoes. There’s a balancing act carried out by public health officials and wetland managers trying to both preserve endangered habitat and protect human health. In this guest post, I’ll explain the science behind research I recently published in collaboration with Dr Cameron Webb, and suggest one way forward for addressing human and environmental health concerns in urban wetlands.

During my PhD, I studied how the landscape surrounding small-scale farms affects the spread of a crop virus and the community of insect pests that carry it. When I came to Australia to work with Cameron, I was surprised to find myself applying the same type of landscape ecology to mosquitoes and mangroves in urban Sydney.

The misfortune of mangroves

Mangroves are real team players. They provide a range of services to the surrounding ecosystem and to the humans lucky enough to live near them. Mangroves are extremely effective at protecting the shoreline (but this can sometimes be a problem). They prevent erosion by gripping the soil in their complex root systems and buffer the beach by serving as a wave break. By filtering sediment out of the water that flows over them, mangroves also prevent their neighbouring ecosystems, such as coral reefs and seagrass forests, from being smothered.

Despite all their good work, mangroves have an almost fatal flaw; they prefer waterfront property. Unfortunately for them, so do humans. Urban and agricultural development has eaten away at mangroves, leaving them highly endangered.

The mosquito menace

Mozzies are a public health menace, because they spread human diseases like Ross River virus (RRV). Because of this, public health officials rightly spend time considering how to supress mosquito populations in order to reduce the risk of disease transmission.

Here’s where things get tricky: mangroves are great for mosquitoes.

That leaves public health officials and wetland managers in a difficult position. On the one hand, mangroves are delicate, at-risk ecosystems that need to be preserved. On the other, mangroves and surrounding habitats potentially harbor both the animal carriers of the RRV (e.g. wallabies) and a load of mosquitoes, which means that people nearby may need to be protected.

How can we do both?

 

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Dr Suzi Claflin trapping mosquitoes in the mangroves along the Parramatta River, Sydney, Australia.

 

The potential power of prediction

This is a hard question to answer. One approach is prediction: using measurements of the environment, like rainfall and tide level, to estimate what the mosquito community will look like in a given region. The mosquito community determines what management actions, like spraying an insecticide, need to be taken, based on the threat it poses to public health.

We set out to explore how the way we use land (e.g. for residential areas or industrial areas) near urban mangroves affects the mosquito communities that live in those mangroves. The project involved dropping over retaining walls, slipping down banks, and tromping through muddy mangroves along the Parramatta River in Sydney. We set mosquito traps (billy cans of dry ice with a container on the bottom) and left them overnight to capture the mozzies when they are most active. We did this at two points in the summer, to see if there was any change over time.

We found that yes, the way we use land around a mangrove makes a difference. Mangroves with greater amounts of bushland and residential land in the surrounding area had fewer mosquitos, and fewer species of mosquitos. On the other hand, mangroves with greater amounts of industrial land surrounding them had a greater number of mosquito species, and those surrounded by greater amounts of mangrove had more mosquitos.

And, just to muddy the waters a bit more (pun intended), several of these relationships changed over time. These results show that although prediction based on the surrounding environment is a powerful technique for mangrove management, it is more complicated than we thought.

Another way forward: site-specific assessments

Our work suggests another way forward: site-specific assessments, measuring the mosquito community at a particular site in order to determine what management approaches need to be used. This is a daunting task; it requires a fair number of man-hours, and mangroves are not exactly an easy place to work. But it would be time well spent.

By assessing a site individually, managers can be confident that they are taking the best possible action for both the mangroves and the people nearby. It turns out that the best tool we have for striking a balance between environmental and public health concerns, the best tool we have for preserving and protecting, is information. In mangrove management—as in everything—knowledge is power.

Check out the abstract for our paper, Surrounding land use significantly influences adult mosquito abundance and species richness in urban mangroves, and follow the link to download from the journal, Wetlands Ecology and Management:

Mangroves harbor mosquitoes capable of transmitting human pathogens; consequently, urban mangrove management must strike a balance between conservation and minimizing public health risks. Land use may play a key role in shaping the mosquito community within urban mangroves through either species spillover or altering the abundance of mosquitoes associated with the mangrove. In this study, we explore the impact of land use within 500 m of urban mangroves on the abundance and diversity of adult mosquito populations. Carbon dioxide baited traps were used to sample host-seeking female mosquitoes around nine mangrove forest sites along the Parramatta River, Sydney, Australia. Specimens were identified to species and for each site, mosquito species abundance, species richness and diversity were calculated and were analyzed in linear mixed effects models. We found that the percentage of residential land and bushland in the surrounding area had a negative effect on mosquito abundance and species richness. Conversely, the amount of mangrove had a significant positive effect on mosquito abundance, and the amount of industrial land had a significant positive effect on species richness. These results demonstrate the need for site-specific investigations of mosquito communities associated with specific habitat types and the importance of considering surrounding land use in moderating local mosquito communities. A greater understanding of local land use and its influence on mosquito habitats could add substantially to the predictive power of disease risk models and assist local authorities develop policies for urban development and wetland rehabilitation.

Dr Suzi Claflin completed her PhD at Cornell University exploring environmental factors driving the spread of an aphid-borne potato virus on small-scale farms. She is now a postdoctoral research fellow at the Menzies Institute for Medical Research in Hobart, TAS. In her spare time she runs her own blog, Direct Transmission, focusing on disease and other public health issues (check it out here). To learn more about her doctoral research, follow this link!

Do outbreaks of mosquito-borne disease always follow floods?

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Water, water everywhere…and mosquitoes soon to follow. It makes sense that with more water you’ll get more mosquitoes and with more mosquitoes you’ll get more mosquito-borne disease. Right? Well, not always.

With floods hitting parts of inland NSW, health authorities have issued warnings about mosquitoes and mosquito-borne disease.

Western NSW, has been substantially impacted by flooding this month and the region has been declared a natural disaster zone. The Lachlan River at Forbes has reached a level not seen for 25 years. There is a lot of water about. 35,000 mega litres of water has also been released from Wyangala dam resulting in further flooding. There could be more to come as “Superstorm 2016” continues to bring rain to south-east Australia. Evacuations continue.

The flooding has come at a time when the weather in warming up and there are already reports of mosquito numbers increasing. The biggest concern is that once the flood water recede, how long will pools of water remain, have mosquitoes got a “jump start”on the season?

On the other side of the world, Hurricane Matthew is threatening Florida. The Bahamas and Haiti have already been hit and more than 2 million people in the US have been told to evacuate their homes. Flooding is expected.

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Mosquitoes need water

There is no doubt that mosquito populations can increase rapidly following flood. There is even a group of mosquitoes commonly called “floodwater mosquitoes“. The desiccation resistant eggs of these mosquitoes are laying dormant in the cracks and crevices of flood plains, just waiting for the water to arrive. When it floods, the eggs hatch and in about a week or so, swarms of mosquitoes emerge.

For the most part, it isn’t immediately following the flooding, but in the weeks and even months following that can provide the most ideal conditions for mosquitoes. If temperatures aren’t high enough to drive rapid evaporation of ponding (or if additional rainfall keeps them topped up), mosquitoes can start building impressing population abundances. With more mosquitoes, the risk of mosquito-borne disease outbreak can increase.

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Rainfall records provided by the Bureau of Meteorology indicate that over the three months to September 2016, some regions of NT, QLD, NSW and Victoria received some of their highest rainfall on record for the period. (Bureau of Meterology)

A look back to floods and mosquito surveillance

In 2011-2012, QLD, NSW and Victoria saw incredible flooding. For those of us working in the field of mosquito-borne disease, we’re well aware of what that flooding can cause. Our attention was sparked when stories starting coming out from locals about this being the biggest flooding since the 1970s. Why was this important? Following flooding in the 1970s, we saw one of the biggest outbreaks of the potentially fatal Murray Valley encephalitis virus Australia has seen. This outbreak, and the response to the actual and potential health impacts, was essentially the genesis of many mosquito-borne disease surveillance programs across the country.

One of those programs was the NSW Arbovirus Surveillance and Mosquito Monitoring Program. Following the flooding in early 2012, there was a huge jump in mosquito populations in western NSW and one of the largest collections of mosquitoes in the history of the program was recorded with over 18,000 mosquitoes collected! Fortunately, we didn’t see any substantial activity of Muray Valley encephalitis virus but elsewhere in Australia, cases were reported.

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Mosquito-borne disease outbreaks need more than just mosquitoes

There is little doubt you need mosquitoes about for pathogen transmission. However, for many mosquito-borne diseases, the pathogens that cause the illness in people are naturally found in wildlife. Person to person transmission may occur but for pathogens such as West Nile virus, Ross River virus or Murray Valley encephalitis virus, the mosquitoes that inject their virus-filled saliva into people have bitten birds or mammals previously.

The role of wildlife is important to consider as the flooding may influence mosquito populations but they can also influence wildlife. While kangaroos and wallabies may be adversely impacted by floods, flood waters can provide a major boost for waterbirds.

In some instances, as is the case for Murray Valley encephalitis virus, floods provide ideal conditions for both mosquitoes and birds!

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Do floods really cause outbreaks of mosquito-borne disease?

There are few studies that have demonstrated that outbreaks of mosquito-borne disease always occur following floods.

Studies in North America had previously concluded that there wasn’t a direct link between hurricanes and flooding and mosquito-borne disease. But, that doesn’t mean there won’t potentially be a boost in nuisance-biting mosquitoes following flooding.There is often widespread spraying to control these pest mosquito populations.

Interestingly, after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, there was an increase in mosquito-borne disease with more than a 2-fold increase in West Nile neuroinvasive disease. However, other reports noted no significant increase in cases of either West Nile or St. Louis encephalitis viruses. Surveillance for 6 weeks following the hurricane, authorities found no arboviruses circulating in local mosquito populations. These results highlight that much more than water and mosquitoes are required for outbreaks of disease.

In Australia, a recent review looked at the influence of flooding on cases of Ross River virus disease. They found that the evidence to support a positive association between flooding and RRV outbreaks is largely circumstantial. The trouble in predicting outbreaks of Ross River virus disease is that there can be complex biological, environmental and climatic drivers at work and, irrespective of local flooding, there may be other region-specific issues that either increase or decrease the potential for an outbreak.

What should we expect in Australia as summer approaches?

There is no doubt mosquito repellent will come in handy over the coming months. There are already reports of increased mosquito populations in some parts of the country. While nuisance-biting impacts will be a worry, if mosquito populations further increase following flooding, authorities need to remain mindful of a range of other health risks too.

The good news is that unless higher than normal mosquito populations persist into the warmer months, we may not see major outbreaks of disease. It typically isn’t until November-December that we start to see pathogens circulate more widely among wildlife and mosquitoes. Hopefully, if some hot weather arrives, the flood waters will quickly evaporate and abundant mosquitoes populations won’t continue.

Current outlooks suggest that between now and December 2016, south-eastern regions of Australia are likely to receive above average rainfall. Temperatures, though, are likely to be a little cooler than normal. We’re probably lucky that this cooler weather will keep the really big mosquito population increases that we saw a few years ago at bay.

On balance, we’re expecting plenty of mosquitoes to be about as summer starts, hopefully not “mozziegeddon” but enough to ensure the community should stay aware of the health risks associated with mosquito bites and how best to avoid their bites.

Have you seen mosquitoes about already this season? Join the conversation and tweet some shots of local mosquitoes!

Could a podcast stop mosquito bites?

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This week I’m attending OzPod 2016: the Australian Podcast Conference, a workshop at the ABC, Ultimo. Celebrating International Podcast Day, the workshop brings together podcasters for “an event for the expanding podcast industry to escape the studio or office and meet with peers to share experiences, information, insights and ideas around audience acquisition and retention, new technologies, the rise of the podcast in traditional media, monetizing and of course the fine art of storytelling.”

 So, why am I going? I don’t even have a podcast!

I may not have a podcast now but I hope to start playing around with the platform soon as a complement to my other efforts to spread the word on science communication and public health awareness.

I’ve been thinking about kicking off a podcast for a while but have been a little reluctant due to time commitments. More importantly, I’ve also wanted to have a clear idea of what exactly I want to do.

In a previous life, I co-hosted a radio show on FBI Radio (during their test broadcast days) with my wife called “Good Morning Gidget”. It was a Saturday morning show of surf music and interviews with professionals involved in a wide range of coastal-based activities, from marine biologists to surf shop owners. Despite the early start on a Saturday morning, it was a load of fun. I’d also worked behind the scenes producing a couple of music shows. If I had more time, I really would have liked to pursue more work with community radio.

Perhaps podcasting will be the backup plan.

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It’s great to listen back to packaged interviews with radio, like the Health Report (I’m talking zika virus) but I was also lucky enough to have a chance to contribute to a few podcasts this year. I spoke with Science On Top about the outbreak of Zika virus and the implications it has for Australia, Flash Forward on what will happen if we eradicate mosquitoes from the planet and ArthroPod on what its like to study mosquitoes for a living!

All these were a lot of fun and were really motivating for me to want to get started with podcasting myself.

I feel like my experience with sound recording and ongoing engagement with media provides a solid background in most of the technical skills I need to get started. I’m hoping I’ll leave the OzPod 2016 conference with a few more tips on story telling and structuring a podcast too.

What I’ve been struggling with is format. I like the conversational nature of most podcasts but as I’ll probably be doing everything myself, perhaps a more structured and edited podcast is the go?

There are very few podcasts I listen to that are built around a one-person show. I’m not sure I could pull it off. Does anyone really want to listen to me ramble on for 20 mins about mosquitoes? 40minutes?

Sometime over the coming summer I hope to launch a short series of podcasts covering some of the basics of mosquito biology and how that relates to the ways we protect ourselves and our families from mosquito bites and mosquito-borne disease. I want to share my fascination with mosquitoes and explore some of the gaps in our understanding of mosquitoes, particularly their role in our local environment. 

Hopefully I can recruit some of my colleagues from around Australia for a chat too so we can share a little about the science behind our public health messages and what life is like to be chasing mosquitoes around swamps all summer

Sound like a good idea? Join the conversation on Twitter and let me know what you think, would you listen to a podcast about Australian mosquitoes?