The Mosquito, in Close-Up
What makes these pests so pesky and how to keep them at bay
Why can't these evil buzzing buggers just leave us alone? Blame humans encroaching on mosquito turf—wetlands and salt marshes paved for second homes and suburban sprawl—and arrivistes like the Asian tiger mosquito, a "container breeder" that thrives in damp tires and yard toys. Mosquitoes are short on predators, not offering much of a meal, even for bats. But few quests unite the world like the mission to stomp out itch-inducing insects that spread disease, like West Nile virus, now in all the lower 48 states. Want to avoid them? Keep reading.
They don't all bite
A male mosquito won't poke you with its proboscis, but females need blood to procreate. They pick up on the carbon dioxide in exhaled breath; the larger the person, the more CO2. They are also drawn to fashionable black, navy, and red clothing and to quick movements like fidgeting (or swatting). Scientists are still studying why mosquitoes find some people tastier than others; body chemicals, like lactic acid in sweat, are factors.
They are locavores
While an occasional species has been known to travel tens of miles, most mosquitoes (including imports) traffic within a radius of less than three miles. Container breeders like to stay put within a backyard stocked with puddle-inducing clutter and bare skin.
They have trained noses
Mosquitoes zigzag like sharks, sniffing for target giveaways like CO2 and the bacteria found in smell socks (and, oddly, Limburger cheese). Tiger mosquitoes actually prefer ankles and calves—the drumsticks, so to speak. For some of the 160 identified species in the U.S., no human will do. In Florida, types carrying the West Nile virus have zeroed in on smell alligators (and done some of them in).
They crave water
You won't hear mosquitoes complain about climate change: More rain means more moist areas where they can lurk until sundown, like Count Dracula. (Though mosquitoes hate full sun, tiger mosquitoes will bite by day and, creepily, under a full moon.) Standing water is a skeeter sanctuary, be it in gutters, soggy fire pits, plant saucers, or wrinkles in a tarp thrown over a log pile.
How to Beat 'Em
An ounce of prevention
Patch screens and window cracks, dump standing water, and avoid the outdoors at peak biting time, usually dusk to dawn. Wear loose, light-colored clothes—they can bite through skintight fabric.
DEET, which seems to disable mosquitoes' homing apparatus, is considered the gold standard. A 25 to 30 percent solution, applied all over, except around the eyes, mouth, and nostrils, lasts up to 5 hours. (It goes on top of suncreen.) Odiferous lemon-eucalyptus sprays, applied about every 2 hours, work well, and clothes impregnated with the insecticide permethrin will ward off skeeters too. Lanterns that waft pyrethroids (synthetic versions of plant-derived insecticides) may work as long as the air is still. Forget taking vitamin B or setting up a bug zapper or burning citronella candles (hungry mosquitoes will simply fly around the plume). But do set up a fan—they hate a strong breeze.
Mosquitoes live on plant nectar, inspiring sugary baits. One new pro-only service aims to reel them in with sugar-encapsulated garlic oil, which the company says is toxic to the little biters.