The scourge of summer parties and otherwise pleasant hikes through the woods, mosquitoes make being outside in the warmer months even more of a challenge. And that’s putting it lightly.
If mosquitoes only caused minor, irritating rashes, then we might be able to handle them a little better. Unfortunately, these pesky critters can cause a significant amount of damage with one small bite.
From allergic reactions to deadly viruses, mosquitoes carry with them the potential to wreak havoc on their unsuspecting victims.
But for all the lore surrounding these warm-weather pests — like the idea that they only cause problems when it’s warm — people still tend to lump them in with other bugs as a no-big-deal kind of problem.
And underestimating a mosquito is a recipe for disaster.
Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), mosquitoes cause more death and disease than any other animal on Earth.
In recognition of World Mosquito Day on August 20th, here are some myths about mosquitoes and the facts you need to know.
Myth: Mosquitoes just bite for biting’s sake.
You’re thinking of yellow jackets, friend. Those aggressive pests can (and will) sting and bite for no reason.
That’s not the case with most insects. Mosquitoes might be annoying — and deadly — but they don’t sting without a reason. In fact, mosquitoes draw blood for a specific purpose: procreation.
Male and female mosquitoes both feed on flowers, specifically the nectar. But females need protein to lay eggs, and your blood is a good source of this vital nutrient. That’s why only the females draw blood.
Mosquitoes prefer animals like horses, cattle and birds to humans, but that doesn’t stop them from snacking on humans when they need to.
Recent research also suggests that mosquitoes might be extra aggressive when they get dehydrated. This amped-up need to drink may make them more inclined to draw blood even if they don’t need to lay eggs. It also explains the uptick in disease transmission in areas affected by drought.
It might seem personal when mosquitoes won’t leave you alone, but it’s not. Those blood-sucking ladies just need protein to lay eggs. And unfortunately, your exposed arm makes a ready meal.
Myth: You can make yourself more (or less) attractive to mosquitoes.
Science seems a bit divided on this point. For starters, female mosquitoes need to feed on blood to lay eggs. And it doesn’t seem to matter, generally, who you are or what your blood tastes like if a mosquito lands and needs to feed.
But it’s kind of like humans needing to eat. Could we survive on basics like bread and water? Yes. Do we? Of course not.
You don’t need a cheeseburger to meet your daily calorie goal, but it sure tastes better than kale. (Admit it.)
Mosquitoes seem to have preferences, too, though it’s not entirely clear what they are or why. Some research suggests blood type, metabolism, your personal body odor and even whether you’ve recently had a beer can all play a role in attracting mosquitoes.
Oh, and think about what you’re wearing if you’re heading outdoors. Mosquitoes hunt primarily by smell, but they’re also attracted to movement. Bright, dark colors are easier to spot.
So there may be some truth to the idea that mosquitoes bite some people more than others, but it’s not consistent. It’s also not a guarantee against mosquito bites, either. Even non-preferred targets can still attract attention if a mosquito needs your protein.
Myth: Mosquitoes only hang out in hot, wet areas.
When you think about mosquitoes, you might picture a swampy area or somewhere in a hot, tropical zone. And while many species do prefer still water for laying eggs, mosquitoes can — and do — live all over the world.
In fact, mosquitoes exist just about everywhere, and some species even prefer living near humans. Only Antarctica is free from mosquitoes since it’s too cold for them to survive there. Every other continent has some type of mosquito.
All mosquitoes like water, though. And different types of water attract varying mosquitoes, according to the CDC. Some varieties prefer floodwater — temporary ponds, irrigated fields, etc. — while others look for permanent water sources, like lakes.
So while you might not be able to avoid mosquitoes altogether, you can do something to make your property less attractive to them. That includes eliminating standing water sources, like changing out the water in your bird bath regularly.
Myth: We don’t really need to worry about diseases from mosquitoes, especially in the U.S.
For the most part, in the United States at least, mosquitoes are more irritating than harmful. But that’s not the case for certain parts of the world.
According to one researcher, half of the world’s population is at risk for mosquito-borne diseases. Worse, about a million people worldwide die from mosquito-borne diseases each year. Malaria is especially devastating to some populations.
But even in the U.S., mosquitoes can still carry and spread a variety of diseases — some of them deadly. Here’s just a sampling of the diseases mosquitoes might spread (here and elsewhere):
- Dengue fever
- Yellow fever
- West Nile virus
- Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE or “triple E”)
- Zika virus
It’s true that Americans don’t see as many mosquito-borne illnesses as people in some countries. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to worry about them. Even here, where mosquitoes don’t cause that many problems for people, the animal world is another story.
Horses, for example, can get Eastern equine encephalitis. In 2019, Massachusetts had outbreaks of triple E that put 28 counties in the state at critical risk. Dog owners should be vigilant about mosquitoes, too, since some varieties can transmit heartworm.
Mosquitoes can cause problems for just about anything in the animal kingdom, regardless of where it lives.
Myth: You don’t need “harmful” chemicals to stop mosquitoes.
Everything is a chemical, and the dose makes the poison.
And when it comes to mosquitoes, you need a good dose of specific chemicals to keep them from biting: DEET, picaridin, or oil of lemon eucalyptus, for example.
Per the CDC, insect repellents should contain an EPA-registered chemical component to keep mosquitoes at bay.
Bug sprays that are registered with the EPA have been shown to work. Others, including lots of so-called natural alternatives, don’t have any effect (so far) on reducing mosquito bites.
No need to light those citronella candles or wear a special bracelet to your company’s summer picnic. They won’t do anything but smell nice. Grab a bottle of registered chemicals and get to work (ahem, read the label for how to apply it safely).
For very young babies, use clothing and netting as a safer alternative.
Myth: Mosquitoes are pointless. Let’s just get rid of ‘em.
That would be nice, wouldn’t it? Imagine a summer cookout or family hike without the threat of nature’s vampires ruining the day.
Unfortunately, Earth actually needs these little insect vampires. Well, maybe.
Scientists disagree about the effects of eliminating mosquitoes from the planet. Many seem to be on board for total eradication, actually, but there’s the issue of how.
It’s also important to note that there are over 3,500 species of mosquitoes and only a fraction — a couple hundred — pose any threat to humans. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that those couple hundred that cause problems cause some really big problems.
Entomologists, the people who study insects, say that eliminating mosquitoes altogether would impact the natural world to some degree, specifically the food chain for other insects, birds and fish who feed on mosquitoes. There’s also the argument that mosquitoes keep humans from totally destroying places like the rainforest.
But mosquitoes aren’t as integral to the natural world as other types of insects and animals.
Some researchers say we could eradicate them and that the natural world would adjust just fine. And given the level of destruction mosquitoes cause, it might be better to get rid of them all.
That said, it’s impractical.
Even if scientists could agree that eradicating mosquitoes would help more than hurt, there’s no practical solution for getting rid of them. They breed quickly, live everywhere and seem especially resilient to assassination attempts.
The more practical solution is to be proactive in controlling the populations that exist already and reducing exposure. Per the American Mosquito Control Association, government-funded public health initiatives help keep mosquito populations under control. These include using insecticides and eliminating breeding areas.
But prevention also means taking an active role as an individual.
- Wear an effective bug spray and, where and when applicable, clothes that cover your skin.
- If where you live doesn’t have a government program in place to control the mosquito population, consider petitioning for one.
- Around your own home, check for areas that attract mosquitoes, like standing water, and eliminate them. And spray the perimeter with insecticides that work against mosquitoes — or hire a professional to do it for you.
For most people in the U.S., mosquitoes only cause minor irritation. But the last thing you want to learn firsthand is how it feels to contract West Nile virus or triple E. It might not be possible to eliminate mosquitoes altogether, but you can take steps to mitigate risk. Don’t underestimate those irksome summertime pests. Prevention is key to keeping them under control.