Does wearing perfume attract mosquitoes? How about scarfing sweets? As the mosquito population continues to soar—threatening to ruin your hike, camping trip, or poolside cocktails—myths about the little buggers abound. One thing’s for sure: Mosquitoes carrying viral diseases, including West Nile virus, malaria, dengue fever and chikungunya, are more widespread than ever, and are poised to keep spreading, according to recent findings from Oxford University.
Getting your story straight is the first step toward staying safe (and picnicking in peace). Separate fact from fiction with the help of entomologist Joseph Conlon, technical advisor at the American Mosquito Control Association.
True or False: All mosquitoes will bite you.
False. It’s only the female mosquito that bites, because she needs blood for protein and energy to produce eggs. Males feed on flower nectar. Then there are mosquitoes that don’t bite humans at all—they feed primarily on reptiles or birds and other mammals. Unfortunately, it’s just about impossible to ID the gender of a mosquito when it’s buzzing around your ear, and the ones that don’t bite humans have no easily identifiable traits, so go ahead and swat liberally.
True or False: You’re safe from dengue fever and other mosquito-borne diseases in the United States.
False. Although the well-known mosquito-borne illnesses Malaria and Yellow Fever haven’t been seen in North America since the 1940s (except for one minor outbreak after soldiers returned from the Vietnam war), West Nile Virus is now a seasonal epidemic in the United States—with over 40,000 cases reported to the CDC last year, and Dengue Fever has recently cropped up in southern Florida and along the Texas border. There have been more than 36,000 cases of encephalitis viruses documented since 1999, with some 16,000 cases involving permanent disability and over 1,500 fatalities. The Chikungunya virus, which is exploding in the Caribbean, hit Florida in 2014, CDC data shows, and is poised to spread to the southern-tier states and Europe. “Species of mosquitoes that transmit all of these diseases are commonly found in the United States,” Conlon warns. Fortunately, not all mosquitoes carry diseases.
True or False: Mosquitoes are attracted to perfume.
True-ish. Mosquitoes do feed on flower nectars for their sugar nutrients, Conlon says, so it’s possible that wearing predominantly floral perfumes could put you at greater risk of being bitten. However, the mosquitoes that bite people are seeking a blood meal, so the aromas of rose, lavender, gardenia and other nectar-bearing blooms are unlikely to be a lure. If you choose to forego a floral fragrance, you’re probably still safe to spritz on other scents, such as sandalwood, patchouli, star anise, and cinnamon.
True or False: Mosquitoes are more drawn to people who eat sweets.
False. It’s true that some people are inherently more attractive to mosquitoes than others, so you might assume that their blood is somehow tastier. But in fact, it’s more about how they smell, which is set by their DNA rather than by their dinner menu. “Attraction is determined by the whole panoply of odors someone exudes rather than one single factor,” Conlon says. “Just as dogs detect individual scents, so can mosquitoes.” The bugs are drawn to smells emanating from skin, warmth, moisture, lactic acid, carbon dioxide, and possibly other factors that are yet to be identified.
True or False: Mosquitoes prefer certain blood types.
True. Studies show that mosquitoes like to feast on Type O blood, but only the portion of O’s who are “secretors,” meaning their bodies infuse blood-type-specific molecules into their saliva, sweat and mucus. Some 80% of the general population, across all blood types, are secretors, but mosquitoes seem to gravitate towards those O secretors in particular.
True or False: Pregnancy ups your chances of getting devoured.
True. A study published in 2000 found that mosquitoes tend to bite expectant moms more. You might think it’s because blood volume increases some 30 to 50% during pregnancy, but it’s more likely that you’re simply producing more heat and carbon dioxide, Conlon explains, which are key bait for mosquitoes. That’s also why mosquitoes are drawn to bigger people—because they give off more body heat, breathe out more carbon dioxide, and have more body to bite.
True or False: Your best protectors on the patio are Citronella candles and bug zappers.
False. Citronella oil is a well-known repellent, but to get the full benefit, you actually have to crush the leaves and rub them on your skin, according to tests done by the Department of Environmental Biology at the University of Guelph in Canada. “Even then, the repellency effects are moderate and short-lived,” Conlon says. And don’t bother with bug zappers. One study of homeowners’ backyards showed that of the insects killed by these devices, only 0.13% were female mosquitoes. Your best defenses against mosquito munching are, according to Conlon, to stay inside at dawn and dusk and do the three D’s: Drain—any standing water, where mosquitoes breed; Dress—in light, bright colors, covering arms and legs if possible; and Defend, using an EPA-registered repellent such as Deet, Picaridin, and oil of lemon eucalyptus (sold as “Repel”). And though it’s not proven, electric fans seem to help, too. “Mosquitoes are rather weak flyers,” says Conlon, who uses a fan in his own yard.