Know Your Enemy: Basic Mosquito Facts
Although most people think of mosquitos as a single entity, scientists have identified about 3,000 species worldwide. But don’t panic; only a handful of these seem to enjoy feasting on human blood and cause serious problems for people. Mosquitos of the following three genera (groups biologists use to categorize different species) are the most notable pests of people:
- Anopheles -- Active from dusk to dawn, Anopheles mosquitos frequently feed on people, often enter dwellings (including tents) to feed and are capable of transmitting the malaria parasite. Anopheles mosquitos are most common in the tropics, but they are also found in temperate areas.
- Culex -- Culex mosquitos are found worldwide, and they frequently live around urban and suburban areas. They can transmit a number of important diseases, including West Nile Virus and Japanese encephalitis, among others. Culex mosquitos may bite during the day or the night.
- Aedes – Formerly restricted to the tropics, Aedes mosquitos can now be found all over the world. Aedes mosquitos are very important disease vectors, who can transmit filariasis (elephantiasis), yellow fever, Dengue fever, Zika and Aedes mosquitos only bite during the daytime.
Although there is some variation between species, most mosquitos exhibit a relatively similar lifecycle. Adult females produce eggs after feeding on the blood of another animal (adult males do not bite, and generally feed on nectar). Eggs are usually deposited in a bit of stagnant water, but some species prefer laying eggs in creeks or streams. The young larvae hatch from the eggs and wiggle about in the water, feeding on various organic particles found in the water. Eventually, the larvae pupate, before becoming adults soon thereafter.
Finding Food: How Do Mosquitos Find You In The Forest?
Mosquitos often appear to have a supernatural ability to find people. Even in the worst weather or the dark of night, they can often find people to feast upon with little trouble. Of course, finding food sources is incredibly important for mosquitos, so they’ve evolved a number of different mechanisms for tracking you down while you trek through the wilds. Some of the primary ways by which mosquitos locate you include:
Seeking Out The Bacteria On Your Skin
The human body is covered in billions of individual bacteria, and, like all other living things, these bacteria feed on, metabolize and excrete various substances while going about their lives. The vast majority of these bacteria are harmless to humans, and we don’t even notice they are there. But many mosquito species have developed the ability to “smell” these bacteria – specifically the waste products they excrete. This allows them to track their human victims, even in complete darkness.
Note that the bacterial ecosystems living on human skin vary slightly from one person to the next. A given bacteria may be quite common on your skin, while a different species of bacteria coats your hiking partner. These differences in bacterial populations cause some people to be more attractive to mosquitos than others are. This is why you may spend an entire hiking trip slapping mosquitos on your skin, while your companion goes relatively unbothered by the bugs.
Searching For The Chemical Compounds Produced By Your Skin
The bacteria living on your body aren’t the only source of mosquito-attracting odors. Mosquitos can also track you via the chemical compounds your own body produces. In fact, researchers with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln identified 277 different chemicals produced by the human body, which may attract mosquitos. Some of the compounds that appear most attractive to mosquitoes include:
- Carboxylic acid
- Lactic acid
- Carbon dioxide
Homing In On Your Body Heat And Movements
Mosquitos may rely heavily on chemical cues to find food, but they also use their vision and thermal sensitivity to find people too. Mosquitos have eyes and will use them to home in on your body, but, like almost all other animals, their eyes are most acutely sensitive to movement. This means those who move around more are more likely to be bitten by these blood-sucking bugs. Mosquitos are also able to detect body heat, although scientists have yet to determine how they do so conclusively. However, this means that those with a higher body temperature are at increased risk of suffering bites.
How to Prevent Mosquito Bites
Now that you understand a little more about mosquitos and the ways by which they locate you, it is time to turn your attention to prevention. Because mosquito bites are not only irritating but potentially dangerous, it is always important to avoid bites as much as reasonably possible.
This essentially means embracing some or all of the following strategies:
Wear a Conventional Mosquito Repellent
Conventional mosquito repellents are a good first-line strategy you can employ to prevent bites. Most conventional repellents work by cloaking the chemicals typically emitted by your body so that the mosquitos can’t find you.
There are four primary active ingredients used in various repellents. They include:
- DEET – DEET (known to scientists as N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide), is a time-tested and highly effective mosquito repellent. Available in a variety of strengths, most authorities recommend using a formulation that is between 30% and 50% DEET. Most DEET-based products are formulated for adults and children over 2 years of age.
- IR-3535 – IR-3535 is one of the newer active ingredients used in repellents manufactured for US distribution, but it has been used in European products for many years. IR-3535 helps repel mosquitos, but it also offers some protection against other biting bugs, including ticks and biting flies.
- Picaridin – Known to scientists as KBR 3023, Picaridin is often preferred by those with sensitive noses, as it doesn’t have a strong odor like DEET does. Additionally, while it is nearly as effective as DEET, it will not irritate your skin or damage plastics.
- Permethrin – Permethrin is not only a repellent; it is also a pesticide that can kill mosquitoes. But unfortunately, permethrin is too harsh for human skin, and it should not be sprayed on your body like most other repellents are. Instead, permethrin should be applied to your clothing and boots.
Despite claims to the contrary, the active ingredients in most repellents have been proved to be quite safe. However, some outdoor enthusiasts are more interested in naturally occurring mosquito repellents, and would rather avoid using DEET and similar ingredients. Fortunately, there are a number of different all-natural substances that can help repel mosquitos. Few are as effective as the conventional repellents listed above, but they can still help reduce the number of bites you’ll suffer while enjoying the great outdoors. Some of the most popular natural repellents include:
- Citronella – Citronella oil is a popular mosquito-repelling substance derived from grasses of the genus Cymbopogon. It is generally regarded as safe when used properly and it is about as effective as repellents with low amounts of DEET. Citronella smells nice, and it comes in topical applications as well as impregnated bracelets and candles.
- Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus – Known to scientists as p-Mentane-3,8-diol, oil of lemon eucalyptus is a synthetically produced version of the insect-repelling ingredient found in eucalyptus leaves. It has not yet been approved for children under 3 years of age, but it has been shown as effective as a 10% to 20% DEET solution.
- Catnip Oil – Catnip is a perennial herb that contains an essential oil called Nepetalactone. While most commonly known as a substance that drives cats wild, nepetalactone is also a powerful mosquito and fly repellent. In fact, a 2001 study found that nepetalactone is approximately 10 times as effective as DEET at repelling mosquitos.
Use Clothing To Shield Your Skin
While mosquitos can occasionally penetrate light-weight clothing with their needle-like mouths, clothing with any thickness at all will generally protect you from their probing proboscises. Just try to incorporate the following tips in your clothing purchases and choices to enjoy the most protection possible:
- Wear long sleeves and long pants. Simply covering your skin will help you avoid many bites, so be sure to wear long sleeves and long pants when battling blood-sucking bugs. Just be sure to select lightweight clothing, so you can still remain cool in the summer heat.
- Wear a light-weight and loose outer layer. A loose outer layer of clothing (such as a windbreaker) will help prevent the mosquitos from biting through your clothes and still help to keep your body temperature low, which will provide further protection from the insects.
- Use a bandana to shield your neck. Mosquitos are often attracted to your neck and the area behind your ears, so consider covering these areas with a lightweight bandana or kerchief. This will help reduce the number of volatile compounds emerging from your skin and provide a bit of a protective barrier.
- Opt for light-colored clothing. Light colors, including everything from white to khaki to yellow, tend to repel mosquitos and other insects, while dark colors often attract them. Light colors will also keep your body temperature lower, which will offer further protection.
- Treat your clothing with permethrin. Permethrin-based clothing treatments are available in most outdoor and sporting goods stores, and they can help reduce the number of insects buzzing around your body all day long. Most permethrin treatments will last for a week or two, which means you won’t have to reapply the repellent very often.
Avoid Mosquito-Friendly Locations
You can’t completely avoid mosquitos, as they travel far and wide in an attempt to secure food. However, you can certainly avoid the majority of the bugs by avoiding places where they tend to congregate. This essentially means you’ll want to:
- Avoid damp, low-lying places. Mosquitoes typically congregate around stagnant water bodies and wetlands to mate and deposit their eggs, so try to take the high ground whenever possible. Additionally, you should always try to set up campsites at least 100 yards away from water sources.
- Try to hike along wind-swept cliffs and ridges. Mosquitos try as best they can to avoid winds, as they get blown around pretty easily. Accordingly, you can reduce the number of mosquitos biting you by planning hikes so that they traverse elevated, windy locations.
- Stay away from the shade. While you don’t want to give yourself heat stroke by walking under the scorching summer sun, you can avoid mosquitos by staying in the sun as much as possible. Mosquitos can desiccate and overheat if they hang out in the sun for too long, so they tend to stick to shady places as much as possible.
When All Else Fails, Use A Mosquito Net
Although they are of little use while you are moving, mosquito nets are the gold-standard for bite prevention. Lightweight, affordable and easy to use, mosquito nets should be considered mandatory equipment for any hikers who are traveling through mosquito-infested lands. Mosquito nets allow breezes to penetrate, yet the holes in the net are small enough to prevent mosquitos from passing through. However, mosquitos can bite through these nets, so always avoid wrapping them tightly around your skin. Instead, set them up like a secondary tent.
Unfortunately, there isn’t really a time- or cost-effective way of eliminating the mosquitos around you while hiking through the forest. Professional mosquito-control companies kill the bugs by the bushel, but they utilize potentially dangerous chemicals to do so. Obviously, this isn’t a good strategy for those who are trying to enjoy the natural world in all of its beauty. Other companies rely on mosquito traps to lure and then ensnare mosquitos, but this isn’t practical for hikers either.
Bug zappers are a popular tool used to kill the mosquitos living near back porches and swimming pools, but they aren’t of any practical use in the forest. In fact, bug zappers aren’t that effective anyway, as they usually kill more harmless and beneficial insects than mosquitos. You can try to pluck mosquitos from the air and smash them between your fingers, but this is hardly efficient. Plus, you may expose yourself to blood-borne diseases in the process, should you capture a mosquito that just feasted on a sick person. Smacking them with an improvised fly swatter is a better idea, but it isn’t likely to produce tangible results.
In general, it is usually better to spend your time and effort trying to avoid mosquitos than it is trying to kill them. However, there is one exception to this: It does make sense to kill individual mosquitos who manage to enter your tent. If you are reasonably careful about closing the tent fly when you enter or exit, the overall number of mosquitos inside your tent will remain low. And while you can’t very well kill all the mosquitos in the forest, you probably can eradicate a small number of mosquitos who access your tent. This will help you avoid several bites and get a better night’s sleep too.
Mosquitos are certainly infuriating, and they can make you miserable while you are trying to get some rest and relaxation in the natural world. However, by embracing the tips and suggestions listed above, you’ll surely avoid many bites and have a better time on your next hike.