The Mosquito Diaries
Jim Atkinson cures what ails us.
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I HAVE KILLED TWO RATTLESNAKES, a tarantula, and three scorpions in my time, but in no case was I seized with the blind rage that overtakes me when a mosquito buzzes in my ear. For a while, I regarded this as just an anger-management problem. But it’s one thing to lose sleep because of the pesky things, quite another to wind up in intensive care with the West Nile virus because you got bit while grilling a ribeye. Granted, your odds of acquiring West Nile from a skeeter bite are long (195 cases and 11 deaths in the state last year). But this still gives pause in Texas, which has more species of the critter (85, about half the total in the U.S.) and a longer mosquito-breeding season than most states. So now that they’re not only an annoyance but also a health hazard reaching beyond New Orleans’s post-Katrina sludge—Houston has reported a fourfold increase this year in infected mosquitoes—I decided to find out what works and what doesn’t to keep the little bloodsuckers out of my life.
The diplomatic strategy: If you can’t beat ’em, get out of their way. You’ve heard about changing out the water in your birdbath or not wearing cologne to the picnic. Those commonsense decisions—eliminating potential breeding sites, avoiding mosquito attractants—do work. But mosquitoes are impossible to escape entirely unless you sit perfectly still and stop breathing, as what they’re drawn to is movement and carbon dioxide.
It’s just as important, says Texas A&M University mosquito expert Jim Olson, to check on the security of your window screens and doors. “Infections like West Nile are coming from mosquitoes that are bird-feeders. If they have the option, they’ll take the bird. But if they get trapped in the house, they’ll feed on what’s next best. And that’s you.”
Then it’s about making yourself invisible. First in your arsenal is the repellent DEET, most commonly marketed as Off, Cutter, or Ultrathon sprays and creams. It works for at least five hours or so, and yes, it’s safe: Though it’s been implicated in some cases of child encephalopathy and skin irritation, the Environmental Protection Agency says there’s no danger if it is applied properly. If even normal usage irritates your skin, there are alternatives: a formulation based on a gentler chemical, picaridin, and one based on oil of lemon eucalyptus (both at your drugstore for about $5).
Spraying yourself down for dinner on the patio can get icky, though, so you might try citronella candles. In one study, persons sitting by them had 42 percent fewer bites than those who had no protection. Any candle that produces some smoke works too; in the same study, ordinary candles reduced bites by 23 percent. There’s also such a thing as mosquito-repellent clothing—shirts and shorts treated with insecticide (find them online or at a sporting goods store). Wear these in combination with bug spray, and apparently you’ll get only 1.5 bites per nine hours. But really—unless you’re going fishing in a Costa Rican swamp, who wants to wear a shirt soaked in chemicals?
The shock-and-awe strategy: You can beat ’em—kind of. Light artillery: Mosquito dunks are doughnut-shaped cakes that contain Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis, a bacterial spore whose toxins kill mosquito larvae. Find them at any hardware store and use them in ponds or pools to control breeding. In my experience, they are moderately effective (cost: about $6 for two). The American Mosquito Control Association also recommends the alcohol-derived Agnique MMF, which reduces water’s surface tension and causes larvae to drown (cost: about $50 a gallon, and a little goes a long way).
Medium artillery: Sadly, there’s not such encouraging news here. That electric bug zapper you just paid $30 for? It fries a lot of bugs, but according to the AMCA, only about 5 percent of them are mosquitoes. Ditto the ultrasonic devices that are supposed to stymie breeding by confusing amorous skeeters, which hook up according to wing-beat frequency. Ten studies have proved they don’t work. So-called mosquito traps, which attract inseminated females (the only mosquitoes that bite) to a net or an adhesive board, do catch a measurable number, but it’s not clear whether they kill enough to make your backyard livable, as that’s a subjective matter. (They also happen to kill any beneficial insects that thrive as mosquito predators.) They are pricey, at $200 and up, and require maintenance.
Heavy artillery: Mosquito predators such as bats and purple martins have become a popular topic among the skeeter obsessed. But don’t worry yet about how to invite a bat colony home: While bats and birds eat a lot of insects, only about one percent are mosquitoes. (Besides, if a bat bites you, you might get rabies, which is probably worse than West Nile.) A better option may be a residential misting system. Much like an automatic sprinkler system, it sprays small amounts of insecticide (the biodegradable pyrethrum, which is based on pulverized chrysanthemum petals) from nozzles located about your property—close to the house, near tree trunks, beside undergrowth. It is available from a number of companies, some headquartered in Texas. (The idea started in Houston—where else?—about ten years ago.) The system works well, says Josh Ingram, who runs Dallas’s MosquitoNix, “if you’re spraying when bugs are in the air—early morning, late evening—and if you have located the sprayers right where the bugs are.”
Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em. So are misting systems the magic bullet we mosquitophobes have been waiting for? Perhaps. But as Olson cautions, “The indiscriminate use of insecticides in these systems is harmful to the environment and, much like the overuse of antibiotics, will be inefficient in the long term.” Not to mention the average cost: $3,000. Even I don’t find mosquitoes that annoying.
Which brings us back to the future. After all my poking around, it turns out that the single most cost-effective means of dealing with mosquitoes is that $5 can of Off I’ve been using for years. Not only is it cheap, safe, and portable, it was also patented by the Army, which knows that if you can’t defeat the enemy, at least you can keep him at bay. As Olson will tell you, “There is no nuclear option with mosquitoes.”
Know Thine Enemy: Ten facts about skeeters.
1) Some species can fly up to forty miles to find a neck or a forearm to feed off of. 2) During the average meal on your neck, a mosquito takes in between .001 and .01 milliliters of blood. 3) The average mosquito weighs 2.5 milligrams. 4) A mosquito can target you—by movement or by smelling your CO2—at an average distance of twenty feet. 5) Most mosquitoes live only two to three weeks. 6) Mosquitoes have been found breeding at eight thousand feet in the Himalayas. 7) Smelly feet, dark clothing, and blond hair are attractive to mosquitoes. 8) Women may be more attractive to mosquitoes than men. 9) Eating garlic will not keep the skeeters away. 10) Drinking a lot of beer, however, will attract them all the more.