AL.COM: Mosquitoes of Alabama: What makes them tick, makes you itch, and what you can do about it

Dennis Pillion | dpillion@al.comBy Dennis Pillion | dpillion@al.com
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on July 15, 2015 at 7:00 AM, updated July 15, 2015 at 7:32 AM

Each and every time you go outdoors in Alabama during the summer, you’re likely to be confronted by a ravenous animal, thirsty for your blood, that kills about 700,000 people every year worldwide.

That animal, if it’s female, would like nothing better than to suck up so much of your blood that her abdomen distends and swells more than twice its normal size, giving her enough nutrients to create around 200 eggs. After a day or two of digestion, she can deposit those eggs in any handy source of standing water, and in a little more than a week, both she and her children will be on the hunt, searching out another meal to keep the cycle going.

The animal is of course the mosquito, which can range from annoying pest to deadly disease carrier depending on your location. Alabama, with its richness of ecosystems and geography, is home to about 60 species of mosquito, according to Auburn University entomologist Derrick Mathias, but that’s just a drop in the worldwide bucket.

Mathias said the best estimate is that we share the planet with around 3500 distinct species of mosquito, and he’s spent much of his career studying them. Mathias studied mosquitoes in the Pacific Northwest and in Kenya before taking a job at Auburn last year. He even got a Masters degree in public health in addition to his PhD in entomology to better understand the disease-spreading capability of mosquitoes and ticks.

Though there are many species of mosquito, not all of them are after your blood, he said. Male mosquitoes do not feed on blood. That’s only necessary for females who are preparing to lay eggs.

Some species of mosquito need only plant nectar to complete their life cycles. Some are actually considered beneficial because they feast on other mosquito larvae early in their life cycle and then live on plant nectar as adults.

Mathias said many species rarely come into contact with humans because they live deep in woods or wetlands where people don’t often go. Some species that do require a “blood meal” prefer birds over mammals, though most are fairly opportunistic.

Some are vectors for diseases like malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever, and West Nile virus. Some carry the diseases but haven’t been shown to transmit them to humans. Some are non-carriers.

An invasive pest

One of Alabama’s most annoying and blood-thirsty species wasn’t even found in this hemisphere 40 years ago. Mathias said the Asian tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus), is an invasive, imported species that didn’t reach the southeast United States until the mid-1980s.

Recent research has traced the arrival of the Asian tiger mosquito to shipments of used tires that arrived in Houston from Japan and other Asian countries about 30 years ago. The mosquito larvae survived the journey in tiny pools of standing water among the tires.

“What makes (the Asian tiger) different is that they don’t need much water at all,” Mathias said. “They’re really well-adapted to small containers.”

The Asian tiger mosquito has out-competed and largely replaced the so-called “yellow fever mosquito” (Aedes aegypti), in Alabama, Mathias said. While it’s tempting to celebrate the absence of yellow fever mosquitoes in the state, the Asian variety can carry most of the same diseases as its African cousin (which was also an imported species in Alabama), and tends to live in close contact with humans.

Unlike some species of mosquitoes, which prefer deep woods, the Asian tiger mosquito feels right at home in suburban areas and prefers feeding on mammals, especially those who live in two-story ranch houses with clogged gutters, stagnant bird baths or flower pots that collect water laying around. It has distinctive (as mosquitoes go) black and white strips on its legs and body, with a white stripe down its back.

Controlling the beast

Despite a number of interesting high-tech research studies into flying pest control, the best recommended tactics for mosquito control are the simple ones we’ve heard for years.

  • Eliminate pools of standing water around your home that they use to lay their eggs.
  • Avoid outdoor exposure in the hours around dawn and dusk.
  • Wear repellents with DEET, long sleeves and pants, and bright-colored clothing if you do go out in mosquito country.
  • Patch window screens or other gaps that may allow mosquitoes into your home.

Mathias said that mosquito eggs can hatch in about a week, depending on the species, so he would turn empty any bird baths or pools of standing water twice a week. For ponds or containers you can’t empty, several larvicides are available, usually in pellet form, that can kill larvae or pupae before they reach adulthood.

What’s in your insecticide?

Several local governments throughout Alabama spray for mosquitoes during the peak season, summer. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the most common adulticide is called permethrin, which is sprayed from a truck or dropped from a plane. EPA says that 9 to 10 million acres of land annually are treated with permethrin each year. Permethrin is the most common of a class of similar insecticides called pyrethroids.

Pyrethroids are meant to be applied via ultra-low volume (ULV) aerosol sprays, to target and kill adult mosquitoes in the air, so it’s most effective during peak mosquito hours around dusk.

According to EPA, pyrethroids are not believed to pose “unreasonable” risks to human health or the environment, but are toxic to marine life and bees. One woman has filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Birmingham, claiming its mosquito spraying program was killing beneficial pollinators like bees and butterflies.

Mathias said that “off-target” impacts should be considered in mosquito spraying programs, or for people who use private services or purchase their own insecticides.

“It’s really a balancing act,” Mathias said. “Is it worth spraying or not? If you want butterflies in your garden, maybe it’s not.”

Mathias said some mosquitoes in Alabama have developed resistance to insecticides. Insecticide resistant mosquitoes are a particular concern in tropical areas where malaria kills hundreds of thousands of people every year.

Natural solutions

For those who don’t want to wage chemical warfare in their backyards, there are a number of natural predators or deterrents to mosquitoes that may help keep the populations in check, though possibly not enough to host a 7 p.m. dinner party on your back deck without expecting a few extra guests.

One of the most frequently mentioned mosquito predators, the bat, has been shown in laboratory tests to eat huge numbers of mosquitoes in relatively short periods of time. It’s much less certain, however, that bats can eat enough mosquitoes fast enough to be a one-stop solution to a pest problem.

There are several commercially available bat houses homeowners can purchase to provide habitat for voracious insectivores. Several species of birds eat mosquitoes as well, so having them around couldn’t hurt either, and if you have a pond, certain species of fish feed readily on mosquito larvae.

There are also a number of aromatic plants which are thought to repel mosquitoes or mask the smell of nearby people, including citronella, basil, lemon balm, mint, rosemary, marigolds, and geraniums.

High-tech options

While the simplest mosquito control methods can be the most effective, there are some new emerging techniques, including genetically modified mosquitoes. Florida-based company Oxitec is developing genetically-modified mosquitoes to infiltrate natural populations with less desirable traits.

According to the Oxitec web site, the company engineered a “friendly” male Aedes aegypti mosquito that they release into the wild. The friendly mosquito mates with females of its species but produces offspring that do not survive to adulthood.

Florida officials are reportedly debating whether to try the GMO approach in the Florida Keys, where A. aegypti have begun developing resistance to pesticides and where diseases like dengue fever and chikungunya are more of a threat.

July 16, 2015: Mobile County Health Department Confirms 1 case of West Nile Virus

Source: Mobile County Department of Health
Source: Mobile County Health Department
MOBILE, Alabama – A case of human West Nile virus (WNV), which is a form of mosquito-borne encephalitis, has been confirmed by laboratory results, according to Dr. Bernard Eichold, Health Officer for the Mobile County Health Department.
The case is from the 36610 ZIP code area and involves a female patient in her 70s. The patient is being treated at a local hospital. This is the first human case reported in Mobile County this year, health officials said. Because of patient confidentiality laws, no other information is available about the case.
Humans with WNV and other mosquito-borne diseases often have symptoms of high fever, severe headache, nausea, stiff neck, confusion, muscle weakness, paralysis, disorientation, and seizures that are severe enough to require medical attention, Eichold said. In rare cases, WNV can cause coma or death. The seriousness of an illness may depend on a person’s health and age. WNV affects the elderly most severely, health data shows.
“The public should assume that there are mosquitoes carrying the disease throughout Mobile, not just in the ZIP code of the patient,” Eichold said. “Don’t let your guard down.”

Source:  http://mchd.org/Documents/BulkDocumentshttps://mosquitosquadbhamso.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post-new.php/News_717201584215am_071615A.pdf.pdf

Mosquito Squad Gives Back

malaria no more

image:  www.malarianomore.org

One of the most common non-mosquito management questions I am asked as a sales representative for Mosquito Squad of Birmingham is what are we doing as a company to give back?  If mosquito borne illnesses are among the most deadly and yet are among the most preventable how are you leading the fight to save lives?

Because we care about preventing mosquito borne illnesses and since mosquitoes and mosquito management are our business we at Mosquito Squad have partnered with Malaria No More (www.malarianomore.org) and their subsidiary organization One Billion Nets (www.1billionnets.org) to help with mosquito borne illness prevention specifically in Africa.  Malaria No More is an amazing organization with a passion for preventing deaths due to malaria.

When Mosquito Squad partnered with Malaria No More back over three years ago, it was our goal to help to save lives in Africa—the continent most affected by mosquito borne illnesses like malaria.  Over 250 million people on the African continent contract malaria annually, and over 2000 children die DAILY from the disease.  All from a disease that we can help prevent.

In January of 2014, after seeing the success of our partnership with Malaria No More in helping to save the lives of 100,000+, Mosquito Squad put forth a three year initiative to save 250,000 lives.  How do we plan to do this?  Simply by providing insecticide treated bed nets and medications needed to prevent and treat malaria.

It only costs $1 to help save a life—literally.  For every Mosquito Squad treatment we spray we donate $1 to Malaria No More.  Every dollar donated goes to providing mosquito netting, malaria testing, and treatment of malaria using effective and current medications in Africa.  If you’d like to partner with Malaria No More and with us here at Mosquito Squad to help end malaria, you can go to www.swatmalaria.net.  Donate a dollar and save a life.

Thanks in advance for your help to eradicate malaria!

Why Do Mosquitoes Buzz in Your Ear?

One of my all-time favorite children’s stories, Why Do Mosquito’s Buzz in People’s Ears, is an African folk tale that tells of the havoc one tiny mosquito can wreak on a community. In the end, one owlet is a fatal casualty of the mischievous mosquito who is forced into hiding. Mosquitoes are dangerous creatures.
West Nile Virus, Malaria, Dengue Fever, and Yellow Fever are just a few of the many illnesses that mosquitoes are known to carry and transmit to humans. From malaria alone, there are one million deaths and 300 – 500 million cases are still reported annually in the world (Source: Mosquito.org). Fortunately there have been major advancements in medical treatments and the scientific understanding of how mosquito borne diseases are transmitted.
Even though we have made huge advancements in understanding mosquito borne illnesses, there are many mosquito facts that people are not aware of. Here are just a few:
1. Mosquito borne illnesses are among some of the most preventable. According to http://www.floridahealth.org, here are a few things you can do to keep your property and home as close to mosquito-free as possible:
a. DRAIN standing water to keep mosquitoes from laying eggs. Remove the water source and you will remove the ability for mosquitoes to reproduce.
b. Cover your skin with clothing and use repellent.
c. Cover windows and doors with screens to keep mosquitoes out of your indoor living space.
d. Contact your local mosquito control agency (like MOSQUITO SQUAD of BIRMINGHAM! :)) if you have a mosquito problem.
2. Mosquitoes only weigh 1/25,000 of an ounce. But they sure can be annoying for such a small creature.
3. Only female mosquitoes bite. Despite what most people think, mosquitoes do not “feed” on blood. They generally feed on plant nectar. The females only bite when they need protein (from you!) to lay eggs.
4. One female mosquito can lay between 100-300 eggs at a time. If she lives up to 100 days, that is between 1000-3000 eggs in her life time. That’s an awful lot of baby mosquitos in your back yard.
5. It only takes 4-7 days for a mosquito to develop from egg to adulthood. Once they reach adulthood they begin to reproduce.
Mosquito bites are not just annoying. They can be dangerous. West Nile Virus (WNV) is commonly seen in our part of Alabama. The virus is spread by infected mosquitoes and WNV is not something to brush off. According to Carson, Konewko, and Wold, et al (2006) it can take anywhere from 60-90 days to recover from WNV. Some of the longer reaching symptoms, which can last up to a year, are tremors, dysfunction in motor skills, and fatigue.
As you spend the rest of your summer enjoying (?) the heat and humidity of central Alabama, remember—mosquitoes don’t have to buzz in your ear! Mosquito Squad of Birmingham can help you take care of all your mosquito management needs!

Give us a call today @ 205-380-7755 to set up service.