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October 14, 2019

10 Amazing Facts About Mosquitoes

Head of the City’s Mosquito Abatement Program, Mike Jenkins, on this maligned bloodsucker.

Who: Mike Jenkins

Age: 42

Job: Biological Sciences Technician

Experience: Even though he helps to thin out the mosquito population, he has a fondness for the adaptable organism and its 100-plus species (of which 30 exist in the area). In the late ’80s, while a palaeontology student at the University of Alberta, he got a summer job studying birds and aquatic invertebrates, including mosquitoes. He shifted his focus to include more zoology studies and soon landed another fateful summer job, this time with the City’s Mosquito Abatement Program to test the effectiveness of pesticides. Today he supervises the surveillance lab, monitoring mosquito populations and lifecycles, and deciding when to drop pesticides into “temporary bodies of water” (that is, large puddles). While the main goal of the program is to reduce the nuisance, it also monitors species that could potentially carry diseases, like West Nile Virus.

– “Female mosquitoes use protein from blood to develop their eggs. That’s how such a tiny little insect is able to lay so many eggs, because they’re using our protein to build the next generation.

– “When they are out looking for a blood meal, they have a variety of different cues to find it. It’s kind of a hierarchy: They may first look for carbon dioxide, then heat, then colours or the scent of lactic acid, which is in our sweat. Lower down the list is light. So, in some cases, when mosquitoes are emerging out in fields far from the city and they aren’t finding any of those first cues, they just start flying towards the lights of the city.

– “Only females bite, but both males and females feed on nectar for their primary food source. So, they can actually act as pollinators in some cases.

– “Even though mosquito larvae are aquatic and develop in water, they breathe air. They have a little siphon that they stick up to the surface like a snorkel. But there’s one species of mosquito that pierces its siphon into plant tissue to get its oxygen.

– “In 2003, the first time West Nile showed up, there were 10 human cases in the Edmonton area and 16 fatalities across the country from the virus. But then, there were also 16 people killed by lightning strikes in Canada. So, it’s not something to avoid going outside about, but at the same time, you wouldn’t want to go out golfing in a lightning storm.

– “As the mosquito is taking a blood meal, she’s also injecting an anticoagulant [blood thinner] to get the blood flowing. And most people have a reaction to that anticoagulant saliva, and that’s what’s causing the itching; it’s that your body is essentially attacking the proteins that she’s injecting into the body. Some people don’t have a reaction.

– “Mosquitoes may be drawn to the yard by the light of a bug zapper, and then detect carbon dioxide and increase the amount of biting. A lot of the bugs that are zapped are actually beneficial. And even if they aren’t, if a big, juicy housefly gets zapped by one of those, they can actually explode and throw fly shrapnel up to three metres. So, it’s best not to eat a picnic lunch close by.

– “Some species can live up to a year or more. But in general, most live probably three or four days as an adult.

– “They’re highly adaptable. There’s even a mosquito species from Alberta that’s tough enough to survive the fluids of a carnivorous pitcher plant and scavenge all the stuff the plant collects.

– “Back in the ’80s, the City of Edmonton did some mark-and-recapture studies. They actually took a bunch of mosquitoes and covered them in fluorescent orange and pink dyes and then released them near Villeneuve and then took a look in light traps to see how far they got. They found them in the river valley of the North Saskatchewan, up to 25 kilometres from where they were released.”

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