Managing Mosquitoes

by Toli Lerios

Introduction

We have two kinds of mosquitoes in Big Country. In terms of quantity, we are no better and no worse than the rest of the Texas. But if you’re interesting in doing better than the average, read on.

Since it’s a good idea for a mosquito hunter to know their prey, I’ll start off by distinguishing the two mosquito species we have around here:

  1. The first kind of mosquito is the Culex mosquito. You can tell when a Culex bites you because the bite itches for at least a day. If you see the Culex, it looks plain black. And, finally, it’s a native pest that goes out hunting in the evening and night only.
    Asian tiger mosquito
  2. The second kind is the asian tiger mosquito, or Aedes albopictus as it’s officially known. The bite of these mosquitoes is very short-lasting (just a couple of hours). The trouble is that these guys bite 24/7, and they are pretty prolific: so you are likely to get bitten by many of them. They are an imported mosquito, from Asia, but they are quite at home now in Texas. They are much more common in our neighborhood because, unlike the Culex, they can breed in environments where Culex cannot; and they are much harder to kill. They are very easy to identify as they have banded extremities (they are quite pretty, in fact, as insects go).

All mosquitoes can carry diseases so mosquito bites are always best avoided. For those interested in the popular West Nile virus (which is not the worst kind of disease mosquitos carry, but it sure is the topic du jour), entomologists used to think that only the Culex could carry the virus; but recently, tiger mosquitoes have also been found to be carriers (Day-time Mosquitoes Carrying West Nile, too, Houston Chronicle 01/15/2003).

I am not an expert in mosquitoes, nor even an amateur entomologist, nor a physician or nurse. This is just a central repository of select, hopefully reliable, information related to mosquito identification, control, and relief from bites. If you have any updates to this information, or want to share your own personal experience, please drop a note to the author.

Background

Control

Numerous articles have been written on mosquito control techniques. Here are the ones that discuss the most recent techniques:

  • Dallas Morning News – Mission: Mosquito, 07/11/2003. It refers to the Consumer Reports article below. Courtesy of John Lindquist.
  • Consumer Reports, 05/2003. An excellent all-around article, covering the West Nile virus and Lyme disease, and evaluating control methods. Courtesy of Ed Price.
  • Lambda Bio-Booster, a soup of microbes, bacteria, and fungi that controls a number of pests. Like the traps in the Consumer Reports article, it reduces the mosquito population, but does not eliminate it.
  • Those that do not wish to mess with any synthetic chemicals or bacteria can try natural oils (see the first article).

Personal Experience

DEET-based products work great even during times of intense mosquito activity. The catch is that it’s pretty hard to protect your face without that nasty smell finding its way into your nose. That said, if you are involved in a quiet activity, you can hear their buzzing when they come close to your face, and you can brush them off. It’s easy to spray your ears and since they are far from your nose, do it.

Take the warning about DEET and plastics seriously: if you spray high DEET concentration on some types of plastic (e.g. tents or some ponchos), it’ll be like bleaching a cotton shirt: you’ll get holes. My most telling experience on that front is spraying DEET on my legs, then placing my laptop on my lap and working for a couple of hours. By the time I was done, my laptop’s hot underside was completely devoid of its plastic paint, which had flaked off on my legs.

In my experiments, natural oils didn’t work against the tiger mosquito: it’s too darn aggressive, it seems.

Mosquitoes don’t bite moving targets. As long as my body is moving, I’m pretty safe. Which is why I don’t put on DEET when I jog and I still don’t get bitten… unless I stop to pet the cat at which point I’m asking for it with the sweat being an excellent attractant, and my lack of movement posing no barrier.

Mosquitoes are also pretty bad flyers, and they can’t fly upwind even at fairly low airspeed. So, if you have a fan pointing towards you while you do your outside chores, or sit on the porch swing, not only do you have a pleasant breeze, but you are also confusing mosquitoes: your odor goes downwind, but the mosquitoes can’t come upwind to bite you. Even if they reach you downwind, they’ll have a hard time flying properly to land on you.

Mosquitoes prefer bare skin over hairy areas. They’ll bite your elbow, ankle, or behind the knee before going elsewhere. So go native, and let your hair grow. Or, instead, spray DEET on your bare areas and leave hairy parts alone if you don’t like chemicals.

I’ve looked into bat houses, and there are three problems I could identify with them: first, bats cannot be purchased at a pet store, and there are many bat houses that always remain desolate and empty because bats have no interest in moving in; second, if they move in, there’s the smell of the bat droppings; third, they hunt at night, and so tiger mosquitos who hunt in the daytime are safe from bats.

I’ve tried the Lambda soup. I’ve actually tried the product sold by the Biocontrol network, which is a mixture of the Bio-Booster and the Hopper-Stopper. The mixture has not enough of either to be effective, so I then tried the two products separately. The Bio-Booster was extremely effective against carpenter ants, fairly effective against fireants and Culex, and mildly effective against tiger mosquitoes (it reduces their population, but there are too darn many of them that the ones who survive are still too many). I still prefer Amdro for fireant control but Lambda was by far the winner for carpenter ant control. The Hopper-Stopper provided good local control of grasshoppers, but the high temperatures of Texas render the mixture’s active ingredients inert very quickly, so the migratory grasshoppers come back fairly soon unless you re-spray weekly, preferably in the evening or during overcast days.

I’ve also tried a mosquito trap, like the ones featured in Consumer Reports. The specific model I used was the Blue Rhino Skeeter Vac from Sam’s Club, which is nearly identical to the models in Consumer Reports in cost, design, and operation. The results were downright awful without Octenol-producing bait chips (i.e. pure CO2 lure), and got marginally better as more chips were added. Even at the full capacity of four chips, though, the capture rate was very low. So why did I not experience the capture rates in Consumer Reports? My theory is that, because the lure-filled air is hot, it moves upwards, so in open space (unlike the closed room in Consumer Reports) the lure doesn’t reach mosquitos that live on the grass. Since that’s where you find most of them, they are just not being lured in.

The best mosquito trap and killer in my experience is this: put on dark Jeans, a long sleeved shirt, and go outside at sunset. The dark color and your odor will attract the mosquitoes in droves, but they won’t be able to bite through the denim. Wait until they land on the jeans, and then smack them. On a good day, you can kill 10 of them in 10 minutes. The truth is that it’s only effective in that it gives you a sense of satisfaction — it barely makes a dent to their population.

Relief

So, if you get bitten, what do you do? You can scratch all you want, but it won’t help (nor cause harm, usually). Several over-the-counter anti-itch ointments are available. Most are based on hydrocortisone, which is not very effective for mosquito bites. Another product that I’ve yet to see in the US is Fenistil by Novartis; it is very effective against such bites, and widely used in Europe. If you can find an on-line store that sells it for a good price, or travel overseas, it’s worth a try.