We are virtually irresistible to mosquitos. They are programmed to find us and even basic existence for us can attract mosquitos our way.
Mosquitos are immediately alerted to your presence by the smell the carbon dioxide that you exhale and the sense of your body heat. They also are highly attracted to lactic acid which is shed from your body in sweat. Unfortunately, they are even more attracted to women over men as they have sensors that actually detect estrogen. So even if you avoid wearing perfume, or try to hide behind citronella candles, mosquitos are programmed to seek you out.
When you’re being attacked by an onslaught of bloodsucking mosquitos, it is natural to swat and slap in defense. This exact defense mechanism may be beneficial in more than one way.
What is a simple swat to us, is a turbulent disruption of airflow and an alarming cacophony of vibrations for a tiny mosquito. A team of researchers began looking into how this affects mosquitos beyond a single encounter, observing the insects for signs of learned behavior. They wanted to find out if swatting or slapping at mosquitos deters them even if the movement doesn’t make contact with them. To anyone who’s been the source of interest for a horde of mosquitos, this theory sounds borderline insane – they always attack no matter what. However, this may not be the case…
“I Smell You!”
Mosquitos can actually recognize people by their scents. We each have an individual scent complex similar to fingerprints and, like a hound dog, mosquitos can recognize one scent from another. This is part of the reason why mosquitos might continuously gravitate towards one person over others or may return to a particular individual over and over after tasting him/her and liking their blood the first time. Scientists wondered if they could be conditioned for the reverse, avoiding swatters. So, utilizing a few different human scents, a test group of mosquitos were placed into a flight simulator.
Baiting the mosquito’s with the clothing of individuals, the researchers observed as the mosquitos explored the scents and even selected some more favored people’s scents over others. Then, they introduced a “swatter simulator” – which blasted them with a series of vibrations and bursts of air – to begin attempting to strike the mosquitos when they got close enough to the sources of the scents. Surprisingly, the mosquitos actually did begin adjusting their behaviors.
As they learned that what smells were associated with swatting, the mosquitos gradually begin to avoid those scents in favor of other ones. The fastest adjustment in behavior actually stemmed from the favored scents, which seems odd at a first glance, why would they abandon what they liked the most? According to the researchers it may have to do with the memorability of the scent itself, making it easier to form a connection between the swatting and the scent.
The scientists took their research a step further by even tapping into the heads of the insects in order to track how the neurons of their olfactory systems respond to the changing stimuli while tethered in a flight simulator. This research is ongoing, and we have yet to tell how long these learned behaviors last as the life cycle of a mosquito is roughly a month long.
While these findings show that swatting may help keep away individual mosquitos, it in no way indicates that their friends will stay away as well. This explains why it often seems like swatting and slapping doesn’t help – you may think it’s the same mosquito coming back while in fact it may be a number of different little bloodsuckers.
Stay safe this summer! Wear mosquito repellant and call your trusted pest control experts to safeguard your home against these disease-carrying pests.
Griggs, M. (2018) Mosquitos Learn Not to Mess With You When You Swat Them, Popular Science. Available at: https://www.popsci.com/mosquitoes-probably-remember-when-you-try-to-swat-them/ (Accessed: June 2020).
Keubeck, E. (2012) Are You a Mosquito Magnet?, WebMD. Available at: https://www.webmd.com/allergies/features/are-you-mosquito-magnet#1 (Accessed: June 2020