Frequently Asked Questions
About 3000 species of mosquitoes have been described worldwide. Approximately 150 are known to occur in North America. Scientists group species by genus based on the physical characteristics they share. The 3000 mosquito species found worldwide are divided among 28 different genera. The genus Aedes (the Tiger Mosquito) contains some of the worst pests. Many members of the genus Anopheles can transmit human malaria. The three different genera that frequently occur in Memphis include: Aedes, Anopheles, and Culex.
Mosquitoes belong to a group of insects that requires blood to develop fertile eggs. Males do not lay eggs; thus, male mosquitoes do not bite. The females are the egg producers and "host-seek" for blood. Female mosquitoes lay multiple batches of eggs and require a blood meal for every batch they lay. Few people realize that mosquitoes rely on sugar as their main energy source. Both male and female mosquitoes feed on plant nectar, fruit juices, and liquids that ooze from plants. The sugar is burned as fuel for flight and is replenished daily. Blood is reserved for egg production and is imbibed less frequently.
When a female mosquito pierces the skin with her proboscis, she injects a small amount of saliva into the wound before drawing blood. The saliva makes penetration easier and prevents the blood from clotting in the narrow channel of her food canal. The welts that appear after the mosquito leaves are not a reaction to the wound, but an allergic reaction to the saliva injected to prevent clotting. In most cases, the itching sensation and swellings subside within several hours. Some people are highly sensitive, and symptoms persist for several days. Scratching the bites can result in infection if bacteria from the fingernails are introduced to the wounds.
Scientists are still investigating the complexities involved with mosquito host acceptance and rejection. Some people are highly attractive to mosquitoes, and others are rarely bothered. Mosquitoes have specific requirements to satisfy and process many different factors before feeding. Many of the mosquito's physiological demands are poorly understood, and many of the processes they use to evaluate potential blood meal hosts remain a mystery. Female mosquitoes use the CO2 we exhale as their primary cue to our location. A host-seeking mosquito is guided to our skin by following the slipstream of CO2 that exudes from our breath. Once they have landed, they rely on a number of short-range attractants to determine if we are an acceptable host. Folic acid is one chemical that appears to be particularly important. Fragrances from hair sprays, perfumes, deodorants, and soap can cover these chemical cues. They can also function to either enhance or repel the host-seeking drive. Dark colors capture heat and make most people more attractive to mosquitoes. Light colors refract heat and are generally less attractive. Detergents, fabric softeners, perfumes, and body odor can counteract the effects of color. In most cases, only the mosquito knows why one person is more attractive than another.
Mosquitoes are relatively fragile insects with an adult life span of about 2 weeks. The vast majority meet a violent end by serving as food for birds, dragonflies, and spiders or are killed by the effects of wind, rain, or drought. The mosquito species that only have a single generation each year live longer and may persist in small numbers for as long as 2-3 months if environmental conditions are favorable. Mosquitoes that hibernate in the adult stage live for 6-8 months but spend most of that time in a state of torpor. Some of the mosquito species found in arctic regions enter hibernation twice and take more than a year to complete their life cycle.
Mosquitoes, like most insects, are cold-blooded creatures. As a result, they are incapable of regulating body heat, and their temperature is essentially the same as their surroundings. Mosquitoes function best at 80 degrees F, become lethargic at 60 degrees F, and cannot function below 50 degrees F. In tropical areas, mosquitoes are active year-round. In temperate climates, adult mosquitoes become inactive with the onset of cool weather and enter hibernation to live through the winter. Some mosquitoes have winter-hardy eggs and hibernate as embryos in eggs laid by the last generation of females in late summer. The eggs are usually submerged under ice and hatch in spring when water temperatures rise. Other mosquitoes overwinter as adult females that mate in the fall, enter hibernation in animal burrows, hollow logs, or basements, and pass the winter in a state of torpor. In spring, the females emerge from hibernation, feed blood, and lay the eggs that produce the next generation of adults. A limited number of mosquitoes overwinter in the larval stage, often buried in the mud of freshwater swamps. When temperatures rise in spring, these mosquitoes begin feeding, complete their immature growth and eventually emerge as adults to continue their kind.
Any insect that feeds on blood has the potential to transmit disease organisms from human to human. Mosquitoes are highly developed blood-sucking insects and are the most formidable transmitters of disease in the animal kingdom. Mosquito-borne diseases are caused by human parasites that have a stage in their life cycle that enters the bloodstream. The female mosquito picks up the parasite's blood stage when she imbibes blood to develop her eggs. The parasites generally use the mosquito to complete a portion of their life cycle and either multiply, change in a form inside the mosquito or do both. After the mosquito lays eggs, she seeks a second blood meal and transmits the fully developed parasites to the next unwitting host. Malaria is a parasitic protozoan that infects the blood cells of humans and is transferred from one human to the next by Anopheles mosquitoes. Encephalitis is a virus of the central nervous system passed from infected birds to humans by mosquitoes that accept birds as blood meal hosts in addition to humans. Yellow fever is a virus infection in monkeys that can be transmitted from monkeys to humans or human to human in tropical areas of the world. Dog heartworm is a large filarial worm that lives in the heart of dogs but produces a blood-stage small enough to develop in a mosquito. The dog heartworm parasite does not develop properly in humans and is not regarded as a human health problem. A closely related parasite, however, produces human elephantiasis in some tropical areas of the world, a debilitating mosquito-borne affliction that results in grossly swollen arms, legs, and genitals.
The HIV that produces AIDS in humans does not develop in mosquitoes. If a mosquito takes up HIV-infected blood, the virus is treated like food and digested along with the blood meal. If the mosquito takes a partial blood meal from an HIV-positive person and resumes feeding on a non-infected individual, insufficient particles are transferred to initiate a new infection. If a fully engorged mosquito with HIV-positive blood is squashed on the skin, there would be insufficient virus transfer to produce infection. The virus diseases that use insects as agents of transfer produce tremendously high levels of parasites in the blood. The levels of HIV that circulate in human blood are so low that HIV antibody is used as the primary diagnosis for infection.