How does a mosquito researcher mark the passing of seasons?

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Winter has come and gone for another year. For many people it means packing away the footy boots and starting to shop for swimwear. What about mosquito researchers? How does the passing of seasons change their work?

One of the things I love about my job (and occasionally loathe) is that it is primarily driven by the weather. On a weekly basis, i have to keep an eye on local rainfall, temperature fluctuations, and tidal cycles. All these things have a strong influence on local mosquito abundance and diversity. Add extreme weather events into the mix and things can become quite unpredictable! I can’t ignore the wind either, ever tried catching a mosquito in a howling gale?

Mosquitoes can be found right through the year in Sydney. Generally though, the year for me is divided into a series of milestones.

Goodbye winter, hello spring (plus migratory birds, daylight saving and end to rugby league)

There is a sound I’ve come to dread in recent years. The “awk-awk-awk…” of the channel-billed cuckoo. This migratory bird moves into Sydney from New Guinea and Indonesia around August and it’s call is a kind of siren that warns of the upcoming mosquito season. Once I start hearing those calls, I better start planning the field work season ahead.

The long weekend in October, that coincides with an end to the rugby league season, means field work planning should really be in full swing.

If these birds and farewell to footy season aren’t strong enough reminders, once daylight savings kicks in from early October, I know I’ve got to start moving!

In Sydney, “mosquito season” has historically run from the start of November through to the end of April. Field work is well underway by the time the Melbourne Cup is run and won.

One of the interesting trends in recent years has been are ever increasing early start to mosquito season. While the start of spring if often punctuated by occasional hot conditions, mosquitoes have usually be slow to kick into gear. It isn’t until late spring that serious pest problems are reported. However, in recent years, the start of the season has got earlier and earlier.

It is becoming so common to see boosts in mosquito numbers in late September and early October that start dates of mosquito control and surveillance programs are moving forward.

Say goodbye to summer holidays

My summers are dictated by tides and rainfall. These are the events that bring water into local wetlands and trigger hatches of mosquitoes. My schedule will shift from year with differences in the timing of king tides and the pattern of rainfall.

What these shifts in environmental conditions mean is that I can be in the wetlands on Christmas Day or New Years Eve. Sometimes mosquito season sucks.

The Australia Day holiday is often an important date, especially if it occurs just as mosquito populations are on the rise or there is increased activity of mosquito-borne pathogens. I’m often dealing with plenty of media enquiries at this time.

The kids are back in school by February and Sydney is well and truly out of holiday mode. For me, this means much earlier and later working times as I try to dodge peak-hour traffic getting from field site to field site. There is nothing more likely to take the gloss off some early morning time in the wetlands than spending twice as long as usually in crawling traffic as I try to get mosquitoes back to the laboratories.

Easter bunnies, chocolate eggs, and outbreaks of mosquito-borne disease

While it may be tempting to think the Easter Long-weekend may mark the end of the mosquito season and chocolate egg fueled celebrations can commence, it is important to keep in mind that Easter moves about from year to year. This can have important implications for mosquito monitoring and public health interventions.

When the Easter falls at the end of March or early April, there can be greater mosquito-borne disease risks. In many areas of Australia, mosquito-borne disease caused by Ross River virus is more commonly reported in autumn than summer or spring. Depending on the temperatures, tides, and rainfall, there can be very abundant populations of mosquitoes and elevated mosquito-borne disease risk just as everyone is taking off on long-weekend camping trips or school holidays. In 2020, with Easter falling in the middle or April, the risks shouldn’t be too high (but lets just wait to see what the weather and mosquito populations are like).

An end to daylight savings is usually a pretty good marker. I’m often caught out the first week after our clocks go back and need a head lamp or torch to finish setting mosquito traps! However, the real end point to mosquito season is typically ANZAC Day. While there may be some mosquitoes about through to the early stages of May, it is usually only under exceptional circumstances (at least around Sydney).

Bring on the cold (and report writing)

Between May and September, temperatures get too cold for mosquitoes to be a problem. It is the cold overnight temperatures (as opposed to the occasional warm daily temperatures) that influence mosquito populations. As soon as we start getting overnight minimums consistently dropping below 10oC, mosquito activity generally starts to decline.

Winter is spent writing, teaching, sleeping, conferences, planning, and trying to sneak in some kind of holiday….

If you’re a scientist, how do the seasons shift your schedule throughout the year? Join the conversation on Twitter!

 

 

 

The long hot summer of mosquito and media wrangling

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“Webb’s a mosquito researcher with NSW Health Pathology, and while it may sound like potentially the worst job in the world to the rest of us, it’s important work.” – Ten Daily, 14 Jan 2019.

Every summer I’m required to juggle those pesky mosquitoes and help out with requests from media. Over the past 6 months or so I’ve responded to about 70 media requests and here is a round up of some fun highlights and other bits and pieces.

There was a wide range of media requests this summer, from morning TV through to talkback radio, podcasts and live interviews via Skype. There was once a time when the only acceptable way to do a radio interview was via landline connected phone. This summer I did interviews via mobile, Skype, and various  smartphone apps! Times are a changing.

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A fun segment on Channel 7’s ‘Sunrise’ breakfast show on why mosquitoes bite some people more than others; always a challenge taking in a cage a live mosquitoes to the studio, especially travelling in via public transport!

A hot and dry summer must mean less mosquitoes, right?

The outlook for the 2018-2019 “mosquito season” was for it to be fairly routine. The Bureau of Meteorology was predicting a hot and dry summer under the influence of El Nino. At the time I wrote a piece for The Conversation highlighting that just because it was dry, that didn’t mean we wouldn’t see plenty of mosquitoes.

In coastal regions of Australia, tidal flooding of local wetlands often offsets any impact due to lack of rainfall. Mosquitoes such as Aedes vigilax certainly respond well and there were some very high mosquito numbers recorded in early spring. Usually, the media interest in mosquitoes starts increasing once the politicians break for the summer, this year there was plenty of interest early on!

NSW Health also issued a media release to get the community thinking about the potential mosquito impacts ahead of the summer holiday period and asked me to be the spokesperson. These warnings often prompt a different range of media interest, usually news bulletins for radio. Unlike the traditional radio interviews in which you’re responding to the host’s questions, only “grabs” (short statements regarding the topic) are required. I’ve learned there is a fine art to being concise in these statements and it pays to give some thought to what you’ll say ahead of calling up the news desk!

Some of the media coverage in early summer was less about bites and more about why mosquitoes disturb your sleep! I spoke with Channel Ten about how you can beat these bedroom buzzers! Here are some tips on beating the buzz of mosquitoes in the bedroom.

These concerns about mosquitoes in the bedroom prompted questions about the suitability of mosquito coils as a person protection measures. I’d written about this issue before but there was also some media coverage at the Daily Telegraph and Sydney Morning Herald.

There was also a funny segment on The Project:

Warm weather, warm blood, and hungry mosquitoes

As summer kicked in, I did a bunch of “pre-season” interviews about the outlook for the mosquito activity ahead. One of them was with the Sydney Morning Herald. There was also a piece in Illawarra Murcury on the mosquitoes around Newcastle. I even chatted with ABC Illawarra about the mosquitoes bringing in the new year along the NSW coast. I also chatted with the team at the Daily Mail. Also the Daily Telegraph.

Once summer really hit (and the mosquitoes really started biting following heavy rains), everyone’s mind turned to one of the most commonly asked questions….why do mosquitoes bite me more than my friends? You can check out my contribution to a story by ABC Science below:

The usual coverage of mosquito impacts during the Australia Day holiday also popped up. Will my diet influence the likelihood of being bitten? I spoke with Channel Ten. The University of Sydney media team also put out a piece on why what you eat or drink makes not difference when it comes to stopping mosquito bites. A story picked up and republished by ABC News.

Combining fieldwork and media requests

“Ballina council is calling in an expert to hunt for some ladies – Medical Entomologist Dr Cameron Webb will visit the area next week in search of blood sucking girls.” – EchoNet Daily, Ballina

While undertaking some work for Ballina Shire Council on the NSW far north coast, I helped out managing a few media requests associated with local mosquito problems and the work of council. It was fun squeezing in some print, TV, radio, and social media activities between the work in the wetlands.

I also participated in a “Q and A” on the Ballina Shire Council Facebook page where residents could ask questions about how best to protect themselves from mosquitoes. See here.

Mosquito-borne disease in the city

The detection of Ross River virus in mosquitoes around Sydney sparked some additional interest from media (and anxiety from local community). Coverage in Sydney Morning Herald here.  It prompted me to write an article about what the actual health implications were of finding the pathogen in a heavily urbanised areas such as the Parramatta River compared to the more bushland dominated Georges River.

The issue of wildlife and their role in urban transmission cycles of Ross River virus is always a tricky one. How do you balance wildlife conservation and mitigation of health risks? Together will colleagues I wrote about this at The Conversation.

The media coverage of the Ross River virus detection provided an opportunity for NSW Health Pathology to share some insights into how we research local mosquitoes and the pathogens they’re carrying. See below for a short video from the mangroves along the Parramatta River.

Declining insects, increasing mosquitoes, and the need to spray our backyards

One of the other stories bubbling along during the last year or so were the reports of declining global insect populations. I first spoke to the media about this issue back in early 2018. I was quoted in a couple of other stories too, clearly there was a lot of interest in this issue. This story gained plenty of attention and I spoke with various radio and print media about this challenge were facing with potential insect declines and how we can measure them. I even wrote an article about whether mosquitoes may be in decline too!

I spoke about this issue, and more generally about mosquitoes on an episode of the Science on Top podcast too.

There has been suggestions that insecticides may be contributing to declining insect populations. Earlier in the year, I was one of the coauthors of a paper that called for the need to better understand integrated pest control in our cities and become less reliant on insecticides. There was also an associated article at The Conversation. This was also republished at Domain.

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Floods in the north, floods in the south

The incredible flooding around Townsville in far north QLD created some major concern. Despite some initial concerns about increased mosquito risk, there weren’t any substantial increases in mosquito-borne disease reported. I spoke to ABC News about the potential risks.

The flooding that did trigger a big boost in mosquito numbers occurred in SE QLD and northern NSW. Local wetlands were inundated by tides and rain, resulting in some phenomenal numbers of mosquitoes in early autumn. I spoke to ABC and Great Lakes Advocate about the climatic factors that triggered this unusual mosquito activity.

Everyone was on weather watch late in the season too. A few extra downpours prompted concerns about more increases in autumn mosquito populations. I spoke with Sydney Morning Herald after a particularly wet weekend in March.

Finally, I helped the Australian Academy of Science make a video exploring why mosquitoes bite and how to stop them!

Join the conversation on Twitter, did you catch me talking mosquitoes this summer? Did it help you protect your family from mosquito bites?

Could a boombox (playing Skrillex) save you from mosquito bites?

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There has been quite a buzz about some new research that suggests the music playing at your next backyard party may keep the mosquitoes at bay. Could it actually be true?

“As music is loved by many people, the development of music-based anti-mosquito control measures may represent an appealing alternative to strategies involving the use of harmful chemical insecticides.” – Dieng et al. 2019

Are mosquitoes monsters or sprites?

The study was recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Acta Tropica. The researchers (including one of my previous PhD students) exposed mosquitoes to the song “Scary Monsters And Nice Sprites” by U.S. electronic dub-step artist Skrillex while recording how long it took Aedes aegypti (these are the mosquitoes that transmit dengue viruses) to find a blood meal, how long they spent feeding, as well as tracking how much time was spent mating. The “blood meal” was provided by a restrained hamster and all experiments were conducted in the laboratory.

Adults entertained with music copulated far less than their counterparts kept in the environment where there was no music entertainment.” – Dieng et al. 2019

Unfortunately, the researchers didn’t explain why they decided to use this particular song, only describing it as “…characterized as noisy based on the resulting vibragram and strong sound pressure/vibration with constantly rising pitches”. It would have been interesting to include a couple of other songs in the testing too. Perhaps something a little more downbeat?

Once they had the song playing (ensuring the speakers weren’t located close enough to cause vibration to the cage containing mosquitoes), mosquitoes were released into the cage and behaviour was recorded for 10 minutes. Researchers recorded the time to first blood feeding attempt, number of blood feeding events, and number of mating events.

The results were interesting. Mosquitoes took longer to find a host, spent less time blood feeding and mated less often when exposed to the music. These differences in each measurement were statistically different too.

What does this mean for prevention of mosquito-borne disease?

This study has received plenty of media attention. See here and here and here. I spoke to ABC Sydney about it too (tune in from the 1:07).

While the results demonstrated some reduced likelihood of biting, it shouldn’t be interpreted that playing Skrillex’s music will protect yourself from mosquito bites. The reduced likelihood was pretty short lived, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get bitten despite the dub step blasting from the boombox.

There has always been an interest in understanding how sound impacts the behaviour of mosquitoes. Ultrasonic insect repellents have been sold in one way or another for a couple of decades. Now you can download apps to your smartphone that purport to use sound to repel mosquitoes. There really is no evidence that sound can provide protection from mosquito bites.

Digging deeper into the “Skrillex study”, the results indicate that even though there may be less chance you’ll be bitten while listening to this music, you’ll still be bitten. Even over the relatively short exposure periods in the laboratory study, the mosquitoes were still biting. Notwithstanding your tolerance of Skrillex’s brand of electronic music, who knows how loud you need to be playing it or how shifts in songs (and their associated pitches, frequencies, buzzes, and beats) may change the activity of local mosquitoes.

To prevent mosquito-borne disease, you need to stop all bites, not just some of them. Topical insect repellents will still provide better protection. Keep in mind that even a low dose DEET-based insect repellent will prevent all bites from Aedes aegypti for a few hours in laboratory testing.

See the full paper here:

Dieng, H., Chuin, T.C., Satho, T., Miake, F., Wydiamala, E., Kassim, N.F.A., Hashim, N.A., Vargas, R.E.M. and Morales, N.P., 2019. The electronic song “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” reduces host attack and mating success in the dengue vector Aedes aegypti. Acta Tropica. [online]

 

Join the conversation on Twitter, if music could keep mosquitoes away, what music would you want that to be?

Photo at the top of this article by Eric Nopanen on Unsplash

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. In fact many insects are quite adaptable to change and that’s why we may not be facing an “insect apocalypse” as many headlines suggest.

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?

 

A flood of festive season media coverage

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Spring is gone and with the arrival of summer comes the mosquitoes. Calls from the media inevitably follow shortly after. I have no doubt many journalists, broadcasters and producers have my name in their diaries, circled brightly in red, on the first day of summer!

It is a fun part of my job to deal with the media. Its more than just getting a chance to talk about mosquitoes and their role in the local environment, it also provides an opportunity to do some important public health communications around the issues of mosquito bite prevention and management of mosquito-borne disease.

Scorchers, sun protection, and buzzing bloodsuckers

What got the ball rolling this year was a joint media briefing arranged by ausSMC. Alongside colleagues talking about heat waves, summer storms, sun protection and bushfire, I shared some tips on protecting yourself from mosquito bites and mosquito-borne disease this summer. It was interesting speaking alongside Professor Sanchia Aranda, CEO of Cancer Council Australia, and comparing the ways we promote safe and effective use of sunscreens and mosquito repellents. This was picked up on in additional media coverage. Overall, there was over 300 local and international articles following this media briefing!

The briefing provided an opportunity to fill a gap in public health communication I’ve identified (and tried to fill) in recent years. Health authorities are pretty good at providing advice on choosing mosquito repellents but less so on using them effectively. Ensuring repellents are actually used effectively is the best way to increase the protection of the community against mosquito-borne disease.

In early December we held our “Sydney Ideas: Mosquitoes in the City” event at Westmead. This was a great opportunity to speak to the community and the well attended event prompted some broader interest in the work of presenters.

It was a pleasure being able to visit the studios of ABC Radio National with Prof Tony Capon, Professor of Planetary Health at the University of Sydney, to discuss with Philip Adams how urbanisation and a changing climate may influence local mosquito populations and mosquito-borne disease risk. I’m working more and more with Tony so nice to share the opportunity to talk about this initiative with him on national radio. You can listen back here. This work is strongly linked to the theme of the “Mosquitoes in the City” event and there is clearly much to learn regarding the place of mosquitoes, wetlands, wildlife and mosquito-borne disease at the fringes of our metropolitan regions under the influence of a changing climate and the ways urban design responds to the threat.

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Why me? I wish mozzies would bite my friends instead!

There was another boost in interest resulting from a spot on ABC News 24 Weekend Breakfast. The accompanying online article explaining why mosquitoes are more likely to bite some people more than others then sparked considerable interest! What followed was a bunch of radio and television interviews.

There was also a follow up article at News.com.au and this was also picked up on “Kids News” who republished a modified version of the story together with some suggestions for classroom learning exercises. Nice.

There were two different experiences with ABC News. The appearance on Weekend Breakfast was great. I’ve done segments with Andrew Geoghegan and Miriam Corowa before, have always been impressed with their knowledge and interest. I really enjoy the relaxed feel on the show. Was also a pleasure working with Dale Drinkwater, the producer, who put together the segment and accompanying article.

A couple of days later I appeared on News Breakfast with Virginia Trioli. As the program is produced out of Melbourne, I had to do a live cross from the Sydney studios. I always find these interviews a little uncomfortable as I’m tucked away in a small, dark recording booth staring down a camera and hoping my ear piece doesn’t fall out! I’m sure there is an art to these but I’m not sure I’ve mastered that just yet.

 

Once the mozzies start biting…

With the warm weather arriving and everyone’s minds turning to summer, there is always a flood of festive season-related media stories. Once the mozzie stories started popping up, many more media outlets starting running segments.

There were also warnings about the health threats of mosquitoes over the festive season from local health authorities.

I had the chance to visit many radio and television studios to conduct interviews, this time it was the first opportunity to visit the Macquarie Radio (home to 2UE and 2GB) for what turned out to be a relatively long (by commercial radio standards) interview with Tim Webster on Talking Lifestyle/2UE including a few callers asking about mosquito repellents, disease risk and what the “purpose” of mosquitoes actually is! Listen back via the Holiday and Home podcast.

Taking talkback can be tricky. I’m fortunate enough to have had an opportunity to do this reasonably routinely. I appreciate the opportunity to get a feel for what the community wants to know about mosquitoes, we should be taking these things into account when designing fact sheets and other communication material. There is no point in simply systematically repeating what has come before.

Live TV can also be tricky. I also had the chance to do segments on Channel Nine’s Today and Today Extra programs. These are always fun and I do find it fascinating to see how the behind-the-scenes production of these shows get put together.

Even the local newspaper, the Parramatta Sun, ran a nice story with great shot of me among the mangroves of the Parramatta River. It is also fun dragging photographers out into the wetlands. This time a fun shot of me from a different perspective other than simply standing beside a mosquito trap!

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There was certainly plenty of “buzz” (or should that be “hum”) about mosquitoes over recent weeks. Great to see other articles pop up by fellow science communicators as well as the occasionally celebrity. There can never be too many ways to get the message out!

The mosquito coil conversation

At the point where I thought everyone was getting sick of mosquitoes, my latest article on the safe and effective use of mosquito coils was published at The Conversation (as well as being republished by ABC News). To date there have been about 90,000 clicks on the article, highlighting just how interested people are in the topic.

There were a bunch of other interview requests on the back of this including ABC Sydney, ABC Brisbane and ABC Adelaide. You can listen back to my chat with James Valentine on ABC Nationwide Afternoons here.

It isn’t always easy managing media requests

To finish up, I think it is important to share some of the reality of wrangling all these media requests. Most importantly, it takes time. It takes time to prepare and it takes much more time to actually do these activities.

For live television appearances, that often only last a few moments, you’re typically asked to arrive at the studios 30-40min prior to scheduled interview. Notwithstanding the travel time back and forth from studios (often very early in the morning), this means the interruption to the day isn’t insignificant. There was one day that I participated in two different teleconferences while in transit to and between interviews at ABC in Ultimo and Channel Nine in Willoughby!

The other thing is that sometimes you’ll get bumped. I was scheduled to chat on a live television program that requested I bring along a cage of live mosquitoes. This is generally not a problem but it does take time, especially when I have to actually collect field caught mosquitoes especially for this purpose. Unfortunately, the segment got bumped on one day, rescheduled for the next and then bumped again for a second time.

It would be easy to get really upset in these circumstances but it is a reality of dealing with the media. Don’t take it personally as these things are mostly out of your control. If you’re keen to engage with the media, this is just one of the many challenges you’ll need to learn to manage.

Spot any other cool mozzie media things? Join the conversation on Twitter or Facebook!

 

Why do mosquitoes seem to bite some people more?

Back in 2015, I had an article published at The Conversation on why some people are more likely to be bitten by mosquitoes than others. It is one of the most commonly asked questions I get whenever I give public talks (or friends and family are quizzing me at summer BBQs).

This article was incredibly successful and has currently been read by approximately 1.4 million people. That is a lot of people. Hopefully the science of mosquito bites has got out there and actually helped a few people stop themselves or their family being bitten by mosquitoes!

The warm weather is starting to arrive here in Australia so I am sharing this once more for those wondering why they’re always the “mosquito magnet” among their friends…

Health Check: why mosquitoes seem to bite some people more

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There are up to 400 chemical compounds on human skin that could play a role in attracting mosquitoes.  sookie/Flickr, CC BY-SA

There’s always one in a crowd, a sort of harbinger of the oncoming mosquito onslaught: a person mosquitoes seem to target more than others. What is it about these unlucky chosen few that makes them mosquito magnets?

There are hundreds of mosquito species and they all have slightly different preferences when it comes to what or who they bite. But only females bite; they need a nutritional hit to develop eggs.

Finding someone to bite

Mosquitoes are stimulated by a number of factors when seeking out a blood meal. Initially, they’re attracted by the carbon dioxide we exhale. Body heat is probably important too, but once the mosquito gets closer, she will respond to the smell of a potential blood source’s skin.

Studies have suggested blood type (particularly type O), pregnancy and beer drinking all make you marginally more attractive to mosquitoes. But most of this research uses only one mosquito species. Switch to another species and the results are likely to be different.

There are up to 400 chemical compounds on human skin that could play a role in attracting (and perhaps repulsing) mosquitoes. This smelly mix, produced by bacteria living on our skin and exuded in sweat, varies from person to person and is likely to explain why there is substantial variation in how many mozzies we attract. Genetics probably plays the biggest role in this, but a little of it may be down to diet or physiology.

One of the best studied substances contained in sweat is lactic acid. Research shows it’s a key mosquito attractant, particularly for human-biting species such as Aedes aegypti. This should act as fair warning against exercising close to wetlands; a hot and sweaty body is probably the “pick of the bunch” for a hungry mosquito!

Probably the most famous study about their biting habits demonstrated that the mosquitoes that spread malaria (Anopheles gambiae) are attracted to Limburger cheese. The bacteria that gives this cheese its distinctive aroma is closely related to germs living between our toes. That explains why these mosquitoes are attracted to smelly feet.

But when another mosquito (such as Aedes aegypti) is exposed to the same cheese, the phenomenon is not repeated. This difference between mosquitoes highlights the difficulty of studying their biting behaviours. Even pathogens such as malaria may make us more attractive to mosquitoes once we’re infected.

Only females bite because they need a nutritional hit to develop eggs.
Sean McCann/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Researchers are trying to unscramble the irresistible smelly cocktails on the skins of “mosquito magnets”. But the bad news is that if you’re one of these people, there isn’t much you can do about it other than wearing insect repellents.

The good news is that you may one day help isolate a substance, or mixes of substances, that will help them find the perfect lure to use in mosquito traps. We could all then possibly say goodbye to topical insect repellents altogether.

Attraction or reaction?

Sometimes, it’s not the bite as much as the reaction that raises concerns. Think of the last time the mosquito magnets in your circle of friends started complaining about being bitten after the event where the purported mosquito feast took place. At least, they appear to have attracted more than the “bite free” people who were also at the picnic, or concert or whatever.

But just because some people didn’t react to mosquito bites, doesn’t mean they weren’t bitten. Just as we do with a range of environmental, chemical or food allergens, we all differ in our reaction to the saliva mosquitoes spit while feeding.

People who don’t react badly to mosquito bites may think they haven’t been bitten when they’ve actually been bitten as much as their itchy friends. In fact, while some people attract more mosquito bites than others, there’s unlikely to be anyone who never, ever, gets bitten.

The problem is that people who don’t react to mosquito bites may all too easily become complacent. If you’re one of them, remember that it only takes one bite to contract a mosquito-borne disease.

Finally, there is no evidence from anywhere in the world that there is something you can eat or drink that will stop you being bitten by mosquitoes. No, not even eating garlic, or swallowing vitamin B supplements.

The ConversationPerhaps if we spent as much time thinking about how to choose and use mosquito repellents as we do about why mosquitoes bite our friends and family less than us, there’d be fewer bites all around.

Cameron Webb, Clinical Lecturer and Principal Hospital Scientist, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 

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!