Do you want to beat the bite of mosquitoes? This is a summary of research projects and publications dealing with mosquitoes, mosquito-borne disease, insect repellents, urban wetlands and urban ecology (as well as other Medical Entomology activities) by Dr Cameron Webb (University of Sydney & NSW Health Pathology)
“School’s out forever
School’s out for summer
School’s out with fever
School’s out completely” Alice Cooper
The end of the school year for students completing high school is here. School is out so the partying can start! Lets hope fever isn’t part of the story too.
For many students, this means traveling overseas for “schoolies” celebrations. The health and wellbeing of students attending “schoolies” has been front of mind of many parents and local authorities. This isn’t surprising given the risk taking behaviours many engage in.
Health authorities are often warning about potential health risks. However, with many travelling overseas for end of school celebrations, a range of mosquito related health risks may be experienced. The steps taking to avoid mosquito bites at home need to be changed if travelling to regions of the world where different mosquitoes and more serious mosquito-borne pathogens are found.
Overseas travel brings different risks
The risks may be significantly greater if travelling overseas to tropical regions such as SE Asia and the Pacific. Bali is a particularly popular party destination and also one with a high risk of mosquito-borne disease, especially dengue.
There are other mosquito-borne diseases to be wary of. Fortunately, the steps taken to avoid dengue will also assist in preventing exposure to Zika or Chikungunya too. There are occasionally cases of Japanese encephalitis virus in Australian travellers but they are rare.
One of the main differences Australian travellers will face when spending time in regions prone to dengue outbreaks is that the mosquitoes that spread the virus bite during the day. We’re familiar with the local warnings to avoid mosquitoes at dawn, dusk, and overnight here in Australia. The mosquito that drives dengue outbreaks is most commonly Aedes aegypti, a mosquito that bites during the day.
We’re also likely to reach for the mosquito repellent when mosquitoes are abundant, as they often are, during summer coastal holidays. Bu Aedes aegypti is generally not that abundant. Don’t wait to notice the mosquitoes biting before putting on repellent.
These mosquitoes are also most likely to be present around urban areas and villages. These mosquitoes aren’t found in wetlands, they like living in water-filled containers where people live. Don’t think that just because you aren’t visiting wetlands or rainforests that there won’t be a risk of mosquito-borne disease!
Here are three tips on protecting yourself against mosquito-borne disease if you’re travelling overseas for “schoolies” celebrations:
1. Protect yourself against day-biting mosquitoes. Apply a repellent before breakfast and apply it like sunscreen. An even cover of exposed skin is required. Don’t bother applying it to clothing or “spraying it around the room”, that won’t protect you from bites.
2. Take repellent with you. Australian repellents must be registered with the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority who test for efficacy and safety. You may not be able to get a hold of similar products overseas. Use a repellent that contains either diethyltoluamide (aka DEET) or picaridin; these formulations are readily available in local supermarkets and pharmacies. Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus is useful too but these formulations are often difficult to find.
3. Even if you’re staying at an expensive resort, where mosquito control is probably in place, take insect repellent for those day trips to local villages or markets. These are places and times where you may be exposed to “dengue mosquitoes”.
Don’t forget to check out Smart Traveller before heading off to Bali…or anywhere else for that matter. They provide all the updates on health and security concerns.
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?
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.
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!
While we can embrace technology to track pathogens and diseases, engaging the community to be more aware of the risk and the ways to avoid them will be critical in reducing the public health burden across the globe. This was a key message repeated again and again throughout the sessions at the inaugural Global Health Security conference in Sydney.
The event around 800 delegates representing academia, local, national and international governmental and non-governmental organizations, public and animal health and security professionals, and the private sector. There were representatives from over 65 countries.
The following day, I spoke in the “Challenges with Zoonotic Diseases” session alongside Elpidius Rukambile and Berihun Afera Tadele. An interesting session (chaired by Siobhan Mor) that, through the panel discussion, highlighted the importance of community engagement, as well as communications between policy makers and those “on the ground” in improving public health outcomes in the “one health” space.
I spoke about the issues surrounding exotic mosquito threats in Australia with a focus on the results of recent work on the far north coast of NSW. The work we did there highlighted the need for cooperation between all levels of government but also the critical importance of engaging the local community. Notwithstanding the effort required to go from property to property searching for introduced mosquitoes, such as Aedes aegypti or Aedes albopictus, understanding the role of the community in this response provided essential. Successful local eradication of any introduced mosquito will require assistance from the local community.
The abstract of my presentation is below:
Building capacity to address the unexpected challenges associated with the emerging threat of exotic mosquitoes in Australia
Webb C (1,2), Doggett S (2), Piazza K (3), McNicoll D (3), Sly A (4), Neilson J (4), Dean A (5), Bethmont A (6).
1 University Of Sydney, Westmead NSW, Australia; 2 NSW Health Pathology, Westmead NSW, Australia; 3 Tweed Shire Council, Tweed Heads NSW, Australia; 4 Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, Canberra ACT, Australia; 5 University of Queensland, Brisbane QLD, Australia; 6 NSW Health, North Sydney NSW, Australia
Introduction. Ongoing evolution of trade pathways increases the risk of exotic mosquitoes, especially Aedes albopictus and pesticide resistant Ae. aegypti, establishing or expanding their range in Australia. This highlights the need for health authorities to develop strategic response plans considering different risk scenarios. Context and Aim. Key challenges to exotic mosquito response in Australian include capacity at local government level and community acceptance of measures. Several strategic initiatives were used to study these challenges in the NSW Northern Rivers region. Method. Field exercises were undertaken with representatives of 11 local and state authority stakeholders, surveying approximately 300 residential properties for potential mosquito habitats. A survey of community attitudes to mosquito threats and responses was also conducted, with over 700 responses collected. Findings. Surveys found almost 4,000 actual and potential container breeding sites, demonstrating potential for exotic mosquito establishment and subsequent need to manage local transmission risks of pathogens including dengue, chikungunya and Zika viruses. Surveys of community attitudes found significant community resistance to required mosquito control activities, indicating responses would be challenging and need strategic planning. Innovative contribution to policy and practice. Strategic response plans must address mosquito biology but also not underestimate the need for active community engagement.
Overall, it was a wonderful meeting. It was, however, unfortunate that I couldn’t spend as much time in sessions as I would have liked. There were plenty of tweets so check in on the hashtag #GHS2019. There is also the very important “The Sydney Statement on Global Health Security” to come out of the meeting, please check it out.
Were you at the meeting? What did you think? Join the conversation on Twitter.
There is no single answer to one of the most commonly asked questions I’m asked. “How far does a mosquito fly?” Notwithstanding those blown long distances by cyclonic winds or transported in vehicles, the distances travelled by mosquitoes varies greatly from mosquito to mosquito. But how do scientists work it out?
My latest published research demonstrates that Australia’s saltmarsh mosquito (Aedes vigilax) flies many kilometres from urban estuarine wetlands. This has great implications for improving our understanding of their role in outbreaks of mosquito-borne disease as well as designing mosquito control programs.
There are a few different ways you can work out how far mosquitoes fly.
Firstly, given we know that mosquitoes are closely associated with certain habitats, it is sometimes possible to track back collections of mosquitoes to their preferred habitats. For example, knowing a coastal wetlands mosquito is found many kilometres away from the nearest estuarine wetland may indicate it disperses widely.
Secondly, scientists can conducted mark-release-recapture experiments. In these studies, mosquitoes are marked with some kind of substance, released, and then specimens collected in traps operated in a surrounding network can be checked to see how many of those marked mosquitoes have been recaptured and how far they’ve travelled.
In this recently published study, I marked over 200,000 Aedes vigilax with a fluorescent powder (usually used to create paint) and released them close to their larval habitats in estuarine wetlands along the Parramatta River. For the next week, I set dozens of traps around the local area hoping to recollect some of those marked mosquitoes. By scanning the mosquitoes under a UV light, the marked mosquitoes were (relatively) easily identified.
Recapture rates for these types of experiments are notoriously low. While I was only able to recapture less than 1% of those marked mosquitoes released, marked mosquitoes were recaptured many kilometres from their release point. The results demonstrated that these mosquitoes of pest and public health concern disperse so widely from saltmarsh and mangrove habitats that their impacts can be felt quite widely, highlighting the need for targeted mosquito control to minimise potentially widespread pest and public health impacts.
There is an important implication here for current “mosquito aware” urban planning strategies. The incorporation of “buffer zones” between residential developments and mosquito habitats is often proposed but this research clearly demonstrated that this strategy just isn’t practical when it comes to saltmarsh mosquitoes. They just fly too far!
While this study demonstrated marked mosquitoes were travelling up to 3km, other work I’ve done has highlighted how differently the dispersal ranges of mosquitoes can be. In a study of yellow fever mosquitoes (Aedes aegypti) in far north QLD, we found marked mosquitoes were only traveling between 100-200m. Similarly, other work with Australian backyard mosquitoes (e.g. Aedes notoscriptus) has shown they don’t fly more than 200m. That’s still enough to fly over from your neighbour’s backyard full of mosquito breeding opportunities.
There is a practical application to this work for the management of dengue in far north QLD. Knowing that the mosquitoes involved in transmission are flying less than 200m, mosquito surveillance and control can be concentrated around the homes of those infected individuals. A great example of how understanding mosquito biology can better inform cost-effective response strategies.
There is still plenty to learn about the dispersal of mosquitoes in Australia. I’ve got some ideas so if you’re looking for a research projects, get in touch!
Aedes vigilax (Skuse) is a pest and vector species associated with coastal wetlands and the abundance of this mosquito has been identified as contributing to increased risk of mosquito-borne disease outbreaks. As urban development continues to encroach on these coastal wetlands, pest and public health impacts are becoming of increasing concern and in the absence of broadscale mosquito control. Urban planners are looking to buffer zones and other land use planning options to minimize contact between mosquitoes and humans but gaps in the understanding of dispersal ranges of mosquitoes hamper the adoption of these strategies. A mark-release-recapture experiment was conducted to measure the dispersal of this mosquito from an urban estuarine wetland in Sydney, Australia. An estimated total of over 150,000 wild caught female mosquitoes were marked with fluorescent dust and then released. A network of 38 traps was then operated for 5 d within an area of 28 km2. A total of 280 marked mosquitoes was recaptured, representing less than 1% of the estimate 250,000 marked mosquitoes released. Marked mosquitoes were recaptured up to 3 km from the release point, providing an insight into the dispersal range of these mosquitoes. The mean distance traveled by marked mosquitoes was 0.83 km, a result reflecting the greater proportion of marked mosquitoes recaptured near release point. The findings of this study indicate that effective buffer zones between estuarine wetlands and high-density urban developments would be an impractical approach to minimizing pest and public health impacts associated with this mosquito.
Join the conversation on Twitter or check out some of the other articles I’ve written on mosquitoes and other biting insects at The Conversation. You can also learn more about Australia’s wonderful mosquitoes in the award winning field guide available from CSIRO Publishing.
“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.
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?
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!
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.
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.
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
“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.
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.
You could be forgiven thinking that Australia’s southern most state, Tasmania, is probably free of mosquitoes and certainly the chances of an outbreak of mosquito-borne disease would be rare. Is it even possible?
Health authorities in Tasmania have recently warned residents and visitors to avoid mosquito bites following reports of locally acquired infections of Barmah Forest virus.
Like Ross River virus, Barmah Forest virus is spread by mosquitoes to people from local wildlife. It is likely that the virus quietly circulates between native animals, such as birds and mammals, but when favorable conditions for mosquitoes occur and populations increase, the risks of transmission to people increase.
While there is only a hand full of cases confirmed to date, a total of five with an additional two to be confirmed, it may not seem significant. However, it is a reminder that wherever mosquitoes, wetlands, and wildlife occur, there can also be a risk of mosquito-borne disease transmission.
I was excited to be asked back on the Science on Top podcast recently to record an episode about mosquitoes, currently declines in insect populations (are mosquitoes on the way out too?), and whether recent flooding in north QLD would result in increased mosquito populations and risk of mosquito-borne disease outbreak.
Please subscribe to the podcast, its a really fun and relaxed look at whats making headlines in the science world. The crew themselves describe the podcast as:
The Australian podcast about science, health and technology news. Join Ed Brown and his panel of co-hosts each week as we talk about the latest and coolest research and discoveries in the world of science. We’re joined by special guests from all over the science field: doctors, professors, nurses, teachers and more.
If you’re interested, you can chase up my previous guest spot with them talking “Everything Zika” back in 2016.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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?
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!