With headlines of Zika virus being transmitted from mosquito to human in Florida recently hitting the news, taking a few minutes to brush up on mosquito defense may prove worthwhile if an outdoor excursion is in the near future.
While Zika is new to the United States, and not widespread, other viruses transmitted by the insect, like West Nile Virus, have more commonly affected those who seek their fun outdoors in America where 1,100 deaths where reported between 1999 and 2009.
Mosquitoes have never been broadly considered life-threatening in the United States. Automobile collisions with deer have caused more deaths (200 per year) than the mosquito, which has long held the position of ‘pest’ in this country more than anything else. But, according to the World Health Organization, mosquitoes are responsible for 725,000 human deaths every year.
Mosquitoes are the No. 1 global killer of human beings, killing nearly twice as many humans as humans themselves do, and nearly 15 times as many as snakes, which is No. 3 on the deadliest animals list.
While many consider mosquitoes to be valueless in the animal kingdom or food chain — more nuisance than adversary — they outnumber humans innumerably, and spread diseases indiscriminately.
Protecting against mosquitoes, however, is not a daunting task. A few simple adjustments to an outdoor adventure can help keep mosquitoes from being true pests. Knowing about the mosquito will help to defend their attack, and help keep the outdoors enjoyable.
What mosquitoes want
Mosquitoes want blood, or more appropriately, a “blood meal.” They are built to find it. Females need the nutrients found in blood to produce their eggs. Females are also the only ones that bite, and they have developed many ways to focus in on their targets.
Mosquitoes target heavy breathers. Carbon dioxide is the biggest mosquito attractant and can draw mosquitoes from up to 100 feet away.
Once carbon dioxide is detected by the antennae, females will fly in a zigzag path until they are close enough to use other cues like body odor and heat. They are attracted to octenol, a chemical released in sweat, as well as cholesterol, folic acid, and certain bacteria.
Once close enough, heat sensors near the mouthparts guide the mosquito to the skin, or more accurately, to the blood.
Mosquitoes bite day and night. Some species, like the Aedes are daytime biters, while others, like Culex, start biting at dusk and continue a few hours into dark.
Where mosquitoes hang out
Mosquitoes avoid the heat of day. The dry heat can dehydrate and kill them, so most are active at dawn and dusk when the air and temperature are much more mild and tolerable.
Mosquitoes linger in dark, humid places during the hotter hours of the day, in places of heavy vegetation, man-made structures like barns, caves, and even just holes in the ground. They are prolific in, and very near, areas of stagnant water where they breed.
Mosquitoes lay their eggs in standing water. Swampy areas with stagnant water, and even kids toys left outdoors that have filled with rainwater are optimal breeding zones for mosquitoes. Water provides mosquitoes with a place to lay eggs.
It is also a place to grow and develop through the egg, larval and pupal stages of their lifecycle. For the Culex, as little as an inch of standing water is all that is needed to lay eggs.
How to keep them away
Knowing about the mosquito is the best defense in keeping them away. They are too numerous to outright avoid, so the best course of action is to minimize what attracts them. Staying away from breeding areas like ponds and marshes is a good idea, and the higher and dryer a campsite or outdoor activity the better.
According to the American Mosquito Control Association, utilizing a fan is a highly effective method for keeping mosquitoes away. On its website, the AMCA, based in Mount Laurel, N.J., states that mosquitoes are poor fliers.
The high-speed wind generated by an electric fan is too great a wind current for the mosquito to withstand and counter. Additionally, the wind from the fan disperses the plume of attractants coming from the human body such as carbon dioxide and odor, making it harder for the mosquito to zero in on potential blood sources.
Using repellents can also be effective. Generally, mosquito repellents should be applied to clothing, and clothing can be pre-treated prior to stepping out of a tent or RV. Using 100 percent peppermint oil on skin is another effective method of repellent, and is recommended over applying chemical repellents directly to the body.
Organic sprays are also available, and haven proven to be effective. Repellents that are water-proof can help keep mosquitoes away in situations where heaving sweating is unavoidable.
Fragrances can attract mosquitoes. Perfume, cologne, scented shampoos, soaps, and hand creams can all draw the attention of the mosquito. Freshly cleaned clothing, scented by the fabric softeners and detergents used to clean them can also attract. Switching to unscented hygiene products while enjoying the outdoors can help avoid the mosquito’s bite.
Wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts whenever possible is an excellent way to prevent a mosquito bite, and clothing that is loose fitting works best. The less skin exposed, the less chance for a bite.
The outdoors is full of wonder and experiences that can easily become lasting memories for families and adventurers in pursuit of the Great Outdoors. However, the joys do come alongside a few causes for concern.
Basic first aid preparation, and being aware of the many North American mammals wandering the wilderness are often well planned, well thought out, and discussed prior to and during a great outdoor experience. Equally important is making a few minor adjustments to defend against mankind’s biggest threat — the mosquito.