It won’t be long before mosquitoes are biting again. If you are one of the millions that feel like they are a mosquito buffet, there’s new information available that may help.
There are several cues to alert mosquitoes that you are alive and a viable source of food: your breath, body odor, temperature, and now, according to a study conducted by the University of Washington in Seattle, the color red. You may be thinking, “Of course mosquitoes are attracted to red, it’s the color of blood.” But that’s not exactly the case.
When shown an array of colors from the visible spectrum, the mosquitoes also responded strongly to orange and cyan. They showed no interest in the colors violet, blue, green, and green-yellow.
Why is this discovery important? Because mosquito season is rapidly approaching and having a broader understanding of the biology of a pest can help when it comes to selecting the most effective mosquito protection for you and your family.
Top 4 cues that attract mosquitoes to us
- Color: Why the color red? The study revealed that when carbon dioxide (CO2) was released into the air, the mosquitoes sought out visual cues. (Mosquitoes first smell their host, then visually seek them out.) They tested color preference by presenting the mosquitoes with varying wavelengths found in the human visual spectrum. The end result: the mosquitoes had the strongest attraction to long-wavelength bands (specifically red and orange) the color humans give off, despite the pigmentation of their skin.
- Breath: As we breathe out, our body emits CO2. This signals that we are alive and our body contains blood–the required food source for female mosquitoes. The more active we are, the more CO2 we release into the air. This alerts mosquitoes to our presence and increases our chances of a bite. FACT: Only female mosquitoes feed on blood. Male mosquitoes feed on nectar.
- Body odor: This is a bit more complicated because there are several factors that contribute to the way you smell, such as the bacteria on your skin, genetics, or both. One 2011 study found that body odor can either be an attractant or a repellent for mosquitoes. If you have a close relative who always attracts mosquitoes, you may be genetically predisposed to attract them as well. There have also been studies that show beer drinkers and pregnant people tend to be more attractive to mosquitoes.
- Temperature: Just as some people prefer their meal served at a certain temperature, so do mosquitoes. A human’s temperature differs from other creatures’, so mosquito species that prefer human blood can pick up on this difference. They can then easily hone in on their intended human target. Even if it’s cold outside, our body temperature (heat signature) will contrast compared to our surroundings, making us an easy target.
In summary, the cues that we give off seem to be fundamental to mosquitoes’ success in finding a blood meal. The more we learn about mosquito biology, the more successful we will be at combating these disease-carrying pests. Similarly, we’ll be able to discover innovative ways of stopping them for good. Mosquito protection is a multi-faceted approach, and since we can’t hold our breath forever, we can reduce other cues we naturally produce and reduce our chances of being bitten.
How to reduce your chances of being bitten
- Wear light-colored clothing: Studies show that dark colors attract mosquitoes because they absorb and trap heat, whereas light colors reflect it. Using their highly sophisticated photosensitive eyes, mosquitoes are able to detect if their target is living by the heat signature they give off. Does it mean that if you wear light-colored clothing you’ll be invisible to mosquitoes? Not quite. A hungry mosquito will eventually find you due to the other cues you give off, but they’ll likely go after someone who is wearing dark clothing first.
- Cover exposed skin: Even if it’s warm outside, wearing long sleeves and pants will add an extra layer of protection. Boost your efforts even more by applying permethrin to the exterior of your clothes or wearing insect-repellent clothing.
- Protection for people: Wearing an EPA-approved mosquito repellent containing DEET, picaridin, or oil of lemon eucalyptus can help keep mosquitoes away while you’re enjoying the outdoors. See more information from the EPA about using insect repellents safely and effectively.
- Protection for your pets: There are several products on the market that can help protect pets from mosquito-borne illnesses such as heartworm and West Nile virus. However, it can be difficult to know what might work best for your pet and what you should consider before purchasing an over-the-counter remedy. Get recommendations from your veterinarian if you’re not sure what to use. WARNING: Never use a product that isn’t specifically formulated for your pet. DEET and citronella are toxic to pets. Essential oils can be, too. What’s approved for human use may be toxic for your cat or dog.
For additional resources for preventing mosquito bites, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mosquito prevention for your yard
- Eliminate any standing water. Just a tablespoon of water can provide the ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes.
- Start monthly mosquito treatments early in the season to reduce mosquito populations in and around your yard.
- Trimming back vegetation and keeping your lawn trimmed short is also helpful.
- There are a handful of plants that naturally repel mosquitoes and they’re safe for pets. Planting basil, catnip, lemon balm, and rosemary plants around the perimeter of your yard may help ward off mosquitoes, some can even add a little flavor to your favorite meal.
Reducing mosquito populations
You’ve learned about ways to protect yourself, your family, and your pets from mosquitoes. But to reduce mosquito populations and keep them from coming back, consider hiring a certified mosquito control specialist to apply monthly preventative treatments, especially important before the height of the mosquito season.
This will significantly reduce mosquito populations by targeting all stages: eggs, larvae, and adults. And, treatments keep working, eliminating any new visitors that arrive after its application. If you experience an increase in mosquito activity during treatments, simply call for a touch-up application.