Winged Needles

Jun 15 2011 Published by under [Biology&Environment]

Only I have girly bits and the surrounding cloud was mosquitoes, not dirt; click image for source

Last night my son's team played an "away" baseball game at a beautiful spot in South Omaha, just over a berm from the swollen Missouri river. Unfortunately, we forgot our insect repellent and I suffered 15 unprotected minutes in a wooded area. Now, those skeeters get a whiff of me, and one thing fills their little mosquito neurons: BUFFET!!!!! A cloud of the girls surrounded me, much like Pigpen of Peanuts fame. We finally acquired some DEET, and I sprayed my body. The girls moved up to my head, and I ended up with "Eau de Deep Woods Off" all over my hair as well as my skin.

So why do mosquitoes bite? Because love is in the air.

Both male and female skeeters can live on nectar from plants (more on mosquitoes here); however, the girls need appropriate blood to provide protein and iron for egg development. Mosquitoes tend to be most active at dusk and dawn; many will fly and feed overnight, and most species ride out the daylight in some cool, secluded space. They often tunnel in vegetated areas, and they may awaken and bite if disturbed.

So the sun drops below the horizon, and the guys start clustering like d00ds around a television during a sporting event. They form "clouds" of buzzing critters into which females fly to breed (a regular flying orgy), preferably with an appropriate mammalian source of blood nearby. After feeding, she rests a few days until the eggs can be laid. Then she resumes the cycle.

Given the dependence of their breeding on the blood of mammals (no True Blood here), mosquitoes have to be very good at tracking us down. Turns out these little critters have keen olfactory organs that can find us after exposure to single molecules of odorants. These needles with wings can sense human odors up to 50 meters away. Today SciAm features a cool slide show of a malaria mosquito's smelling and stinging parts.

The researchers hope that their work will lead to new ways to fool the mosquitoes and reduce the illnesses they carry. I just want them to develop something that keeps them away without mucking up my clothes and hair.

We did win the game, and I only had 3 bites despite the delay in repellent application.

4 responses so far

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    When I was a graduate research assistant, early '60's, we went out once a month and did a 24 hour gill net set in a Pearl River backwater out in the swamp. Apparently I became immune to mosquitoes. I don't notice them unless I happen to hear one, and I am seldom bitten. Out in the swamps in Venezuela, I would notice my colleagues swatting away and wonder why. They were surrounded by clouds of mosquitoes, while I had one or two sort of hanging around.

    • WhizBANG! says:

      You obviously make less of those odiferic molecules than us more popular, mosquito magnets, do. My husband is the same way. We will go fishing and he has one bite, while I'm covered with whelps. Oh, and I'm pretty sensitive as well- some of mine will turn purple and get a nasty, vasculitic reaction.

      And they wonder why I'm not "outdoorsy."

  • Karen says:

    I've got the same problem as WhizBANG. If there's a mosquito in the same county she'll find me. On one hiking trip where we'd forgotten the DEET, Husband and I crossed a little creek that apparently had some water still enough to breed mosquitoes. I was leading, and after a few minutes he said, "do you mind if I lead? I really can't stand watching those welts form on your legs." And indeed, I was wearing shorts, and had accumulated some dozen or so welts a couple of centimeters across on my legs.

    Husband had ZERO mosquito bites.

  • WhizBANG says:

    My husband completely disregards mosquito issues. He thinks I'm crazy.

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