Mosquitoes are actually capable of learning, which is good news if you’re a mosquito magnet who gets eaten alive at every barbecue.
Do mosquitoes make summer picnics at the park unpleasant for you? There's an easy way to get them to leave you alone.
Some people are unfortunate enough to be mosquito magnets. There’s always at least one person at the picnic table slathering on insect repellent or grimacing as they scratch their mosquito bites. If this is you, know that you’re not alone, but also know that it’s actually not all in your head. Some of us really are more attractive to mosquitoes—and scientists now know why.
There’s also a need for an effective way to keep the little bloodsuckers away. After all, mosquitoes carry dangerous diseases such as dengue, malaria, the West Nile virus, and zika. Fortunately, not only have researchers found why mosquitoes tend to favor some people over others, they’ve also found an effective way to keep disease-carrying mosquitoes away. And no, smelly insect repellents or weird anti-mosquito equipment aren’t necessary. All you need is your body, and an ability to trash about.
Mosquitoes can learn to leave bad hosts alone.
We don’t really think of mosquitoes as animals that have the ability to learn, but that ability is actually what we need to take advantage of if we want mosquitoes to leave us alone. Some people are prime mosquito prey because of how they smell, look, or act, but mosquitoes aren’t tied to these preferences. If you make feeding on you very unpleasant, mosquitoes will quickly learn to leave you alone.
According to a new study, when mosquitoes were exposed to sleeves bearing human odors and sleeves bearing no such odors, the mosquitoes showed a preference for the human odor-bearing sleeves. The mosquitoes also apparently favored some human scents over the others.
Researchers then repeated the test, but this time they put the mosquitoes as well as various human odors in a vortex that mimics the vibrations created by a hand swatting a forearm. It took the mosquitoes all of 15 minutes to associate certain odors with the vibrations. By then, the odors that were once attractive to mosquitoes became threatening, and the mosquitoes began to avoid these odors altogether. Observations showed that the mosquitoes chose other odors instead, and they retained the memory of the specific odors associated with vibrations for about 24 hours.
Swatting (and a certain human scent component) can be as effective as insect repellent. [Photo via Shutterstock]
Mosquitoes don’t just randomly choose potential hosts. They look for a number of factors, and if these factors don’t check out, they don’t consider a particular individual to be a good host. According to the researchers, the combination of vibrations and a human scent component called octenol is about as effective as 40% DEET insect repellent.
However, scientists still don’t understand how mosquitoes can process over 200 chemicals in a person’s scent. Researchers think that dopamine may be helping mosquitoes identify one scent signature among many. More work can reveal more information that can help us develop more effective tools to control mosquitoes.
For now, however, we at least know how to get mosquitoes to leave us alone for at least about 24 hours. If you swat at them and make it known that their presence is unwanted, they’ll learn to stay away from you. In this case at least, it’s okay to be a bad host.
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