SAN ANTONIO -- Here's a case for knowing your enemy. So far this year, 118 people have died from the West Nile virus; at least 50 of those deaths have been in Texas. Health officials are saying its the worst year ever for the virus that is passed along to humans by an annoying mosquito.
So, while you may not be able to totally obliterate backyard mosquitoes, understanding them better is a great weapon for your arsenal.
So, what do you know about these tiny pests?
Texas entomologist, Molly Keck with A&M's AgriLife Extension Service, tells it like it is so you know exactly what you're dealing with here.
Did you know that Texas has 85 different species of mosquitoes. But, it is the Southern House Mosquito that you have to be concerned about. They are the "primary vector" for the disease. (Also the AEDES can also be a carrier, but it is much less common). These are the only species that carry the West Nile virus.
So here is how it goes:
It takes six to seven days for a mosquito larvae to develop into an adult.
As soon as the larvae hatches it goes foraging for nectar and sugary substances, pretty much like a bee does. They can get that sweet meal from flowers or even aphid honey dew. Then three to five days later they mate, then they get a "blood meal", lay their eggs, then go for another blood meal and lay more eggs. They can lay eggs every three days as long as they get their blood meal in between.
But, get this, Keck says female mosquitoes only mate once, but that one time takes them through a lifetime of laying 200 to 300 eggs at a time.
Southern House Mosquitoes can live as long as three weeks , but they usually only make it through one to two weeks.
1 - hatch
2 - find life-sustaining nectar
3 - mate
4 - find blood meal
5 - lay 200 eggs
6 - find more blood
7- lay more eggs
8 - find more blood
9 - die after 1 - 3 weeks
Yikes! Multiply that by the multitudinous hordes of biting mosquitoes that swarm around your ankles as you try to sneak in a bit of morning yard work.
THE BITE - THE ITCH
It is only the female mosquito that bites. That's because they need that blood to lay all those eggs. While they are ingesting that life-force they need to keep that blood flowing. A chemical in their saliva prevents the blood from clotting. So when they "back-wash" into us we have an allergic reaction to that chemical. Everyone has a different allergic reaction and that reaction also differs depending on the species of mosquito. That's why some bites itch more than others, Keck said.
So, what do you do if you are under attack? Don't smash them on your skin, suggests Keck. She said that may just give you a bigger dose of that irritating chemical, and that means a bigger itch.
Everyone tells you to watch for standing water. That is, indeed, essential to keeping mosquitoes under control, but did you know it takes as little as a bottle cap of water to become a breeding grown for the blood-suckers?
Adults like to chill in any dense foliage at eye-level or below, feeding on sugar sources to fuel their long flights onto your patio.
Depending on the species, Keck said, mosquitoes can travel up to 2 kilometers, or 1.2 miles to find a target. But that takes a lot of energy, so they usually don't go far.
Birds are the reservoir for West Nile virus, says Keck. When mosquitoes feed on infected birds and then target a human for a chaser, that's they pass on the virus to us.
Birds, horses and humans can get the virus. But humans don't have enough of the virus in their systems to pass it along, and neither do most other animals.
HOW THE DROUGHT PLAYS INTO IT
The scarcity of water could be making matters worse, says Keck. Birds flock to wherever they can find water. It's that draw that attracts mosquitoes, as well. That puts the two - birds and mosquitoes - in close proximity. That results in a biting opportunity, and there's the rub...or the itch, for that matter.
KEEP THEM OFF!
The Center for Disease Control says products containing DEET and Picaridin provide long-lasting protection against mosquito bites. They also recommend oil of lemon eucalyptus, or PMD - but only the synthesized version. Apparently, testing on the pure version of this oil has not been conducted, and therefore has not been recommended by the CDC.
Many have suggested citronella could be effective, but that is probably so only if you are standing very close to it. To me, it also seems that you can only keep a few pests at bay with this method and as the evening progresses, mosquitoes seem to get greedier and disregard their aversion to the scent. You might not want to put your trust there.
If you hate the idea of putting repellent on your body, you are urged to wear long-sleeve shirts and pants when you are outdoors. Also consider spraying repellent on the clothes. I've had them bite right through my jeans.
Mosquito dunks are also pretty popular means of controlling the mosquito population. Keck says they contain a bacteria that is specifically effective on mosquitoes, and has no negative effect on animals. These are great to use in birdbaths and outdoor water bowls.
LOTTO MOSQUITOES, SMALL CHANCE
Even mosquitoes have a role to play in our ecosystem. They do provide food for fish and bats, for instance. But more and more cases of West Nile virus being confirmed across Texas, and even in Bexar County. So empty out standing water, wear repellent and protective clothing, and keep that lawn mowed.
Because, as Keck likes to remind you, though your chances of contracting the disease are low when compared to your chances of being in a car accident, why take any chance at all?
Want to find out more about managing the mosquito population? Check out Texas AgriLife Extension is holding a special educational program Thursday, September 13 from 10 a.m. to 11:30 at the Central Library downtown. Space is limited.