Q&A With a Mosquito
By Sheryl Kraft
The deadliest insect on Earth, killing millions from West Nile virus, malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever and more, gets to defend—and explain—its existence.
Did you ever go to bed with nary a mark on your skin and wake up scratching madly at the red welts that seemingly appeared out of nowhere?
Did you ever sit outside, enjoying a leisurely barbecue, happy to be surrounded with good friends, and suddenly you're in demand—by unwanted visitors?
It's hard to account for why some people will answer a resounding "no" to these questions, while others will madly nod their head, saying, "That's me! That's me!"
Why do some people escape mosquito bites and others become prime targets? I wonder that, too, because lately, mosquitoes seem to be drawn to me.
So, I made a deal with a mosquito I found hanging out on my ceiling. In exchange for its release, the mosquito agreed to a short interview.
Q. What's your history?
A. We're very well-established, actually. There are over 3,500 species of us in the world and we've been around for very long time—over 100 million years. And we're not all bad: only a couple of hundred of the species bite or bother humans. And who said males are more aggressive? Not here. It's the females you have to watch out for.
Q. So, if your purpose is not largely to go around and bite us, why are you around? To put it bluntly, do you have any redeeming features? (Please don't bite me for asking that.)
A. Despite our diminutive appearance, we serve some important purposes. We help keep fish, spiders, salamanders, lizards, frogs, bats and birds well-fed. We pollinate thousands of plant species.
Q. If you have so many other important functions, why do you bother with us?
A. Well, some of you are just irresistible—what can I say? We females need human blood to develop fertile eggs. But we're very choosy about the blood we seek out. And it's not like we're selfish, either: after we take your blood, we give you back some of our saliva in return. That's where the itching and bumps come from. (You're welcome.)
We continue to keep scientists guessing, but there are some things for you to know.
Q. Such as?
A. There's been a lot of research dedicated to smell—what compounds and odors you give off that will draw us to you. But there are roughly 400 compounds to examine, so it's taking a long time to pinpoint them all.
If you bathe yourself in perfume—especially that of the floral variety—watch out. You're inviting guests.
And we love smelly feet. Really. A scientist actually experimented using dirty socks as a lure. Some friends of mine who participated in the experiment told me they couldn't resist.
And don't eat Limburger cheese, which is made with the same bacteria that makes your feet stink, unless you want some company.
Then there's your body chemistry. Give us a person with high levels of steroids or cholesterol on the surface of their skin and we're all over it. Love. Lust. Call it what you want—it's an instant turn-on. We can sniff it from far away.
We can also sniff out lactic acid on your skin. Your bodies produce that naturally, but it's also in many skin care products (like lotions and creams labeled "alpha hydroxy"). So, thank you, if you're wearing it. We're gonna get a great meal.
If you're someone with high levels of exhaled carbon dioxide—like a pregnant woman or a "larger person" (we prefer adults to children)—watch out. Better yet, move around and sweat—we love lactic acid from sweat glands. We'll be flying toward you so fast you won't even know what hit you.
You think mosquitoes don't know anything about fashion? Think again. We love dark colors, especially blue. There's nothing more appealing than a human in jeans and a black T-shirt.
Q. You've told me what you love—now can you tell me what you hate?
A. Since you promised to release me, I'll give you a little insider intel.
Come near us with those insect repellents, such as the ones containing DEET, IR-3535, oil of lemon, eucalyptus or picaridin, and we're history.
Window screens that are intact and don't have holes in them are a real buzz kill; way too much of a hassle.
We love to be outside, particularly at dusk and dawn, and standing water is a perfect breeding ground for us. Get the hint? Stay inside and get rid of the puddles.
Citronella and mosquito coils are also our enemies—especially on windless nights.
Here's one more: Give me a bright, white outdoor light and it's like announcing, "Time to party! I'm over here!" A yellow, dull "bug" light? Not so much.
Happy now? Now please let me go. I have an ecosystem to save.
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