It’s a bit late in the season to start giving advice about mosquitoes, but I’m hoping that this information I’ve spent a lot of time gathering will be of some use to people around here.
Around the beginning of August, here in Albuquerque lots of us began to find big, itchy, even painful red welts on our legs and arms. For me, they spread into patches of red rashy dots two or more inches across, especially on my ankles. This was not a normal experience.
We wondered about mosquito bites, but we were not seeing or hearing any mosquitoes, and this was happening in broad daylight, not at dusk. Eventually it dawned on me that we must have a new and different species of mosquito invading the area. Readers living in other parts of the world may be laughing at my ignorance, but I had never even heard of day-flying mosquitoes in New Mexico. Or at all, really.
By this time, the matter was getting some press attention. It turned out that yes, we now have Aedes aegypti living with us, not just our classic old-school Culex species that mainly fly at night. Oh joy, the yellow fever mosquito! Smaller, faster, quieter, stealthier about evading our attention and thus our swats, perfectly adapted to attacking humans, its main prey. And super aggressive, often biting multiple times on the same body part. They do have one happier trait: they’re not a major vector for West Nile virus like the Culex family.
Here’s how screwed we are: https://sourcenm.com/2022/09/12/a-new-mosquito-is-stalking-new-mexico-is-the-state-ready/
These buggers have been around since 2018, but they didn’t become the scourge they are now until this year’s exceptionally wet monsoon season. I remember saying in 2021 that I hadn’t seen a single mosquito. That was true— I never saw them— but I now realize that the two bouts of what I thought were severe, unexplained hives were actually caused by marauding Aedes. I don’t know where I ran into them. We weren’t getting hit at home, and kept blissfully and obliviously hanging out under our newly-built patio roof.
This year, there seemed to be nowhere to hide. What to do?
I read everything I could find about bug repellents, a subject I hadn’t had to think about much since my youth back east. The essential oil spray I already had was doing nothing, though some people seem to have success with some oils against some mosquitoes. DEET works well, but will eat plastics and synthetic clothing, making it fairly impractical. It also smells and feels unpleasant. Picaridin is sold as a safer alternative for kids (though DEET is considered safe too) and doesn’t have these drawbacks. Oil of lemon eucalyptus (which is not the same as lemon eucalyptus essential oil) was said to be as effective as DEET, according to the FDA, and the smell isn’t bad.
I spritzed, probably not thoroughly enough, and still got some bites. Long pants and sleeves worked but were too hot and were not foolproof, since the critters can sometimes bite through clothes.
I ordered a concentrated garlic product to spray around the yard, which was supposed to kill mosquitoes it hit and deter others, without killing other bugs wholesale. Little or nothing happened. The small sprayer I had may not have been adequate.
To deal with the bites I hadn’t been able to avoid, I found the Bug Bite Thing, a small suction device that is meant to pull insect saliva or venom out of the skin. It has to be used soon after the bite is inflicted, but it does meaningfully reduce the itching. It doesn’t completely stop a welt from forming or keep itching from showing up later, but it helps. It’s supposed to work on bee or wasp stings as well; fortunately I haven’t had a chance to test it on those.
I got to thinking about adding mosquito netting to our patio, but that sounded difficult, limited, and probably expensive. It hit me that one could make clothing out of mosquito netting, and then, that someone must have done that already. Yes, they have indeed. There are many brands, but here is one that’s made in the US and decent quality: https://www.bugbaffler.com/collections/insect-protection
I ordered a shirt and pants right away, and they arrived very quickly. They don’t make for the most fashionable outfit, but they make it possible to have a nice breakfast on the patio without becoming breakfast oneself. They aren’t as hot as regular clothing and there’s no toxicity or nasty smell. They also keep other insects out, and can even be used by beekeepers.
We already had netting covering our rain barrels, but we added oil on the surface of the water as well. This is a major means of control, as it keeps any larvae that hatch in the water from breathing. It’s possible that some females had gotten past our netting in the beginning. Aedes aegypti are considered weak flyers and tend to stay near the area where they hatched, and we had no other water in our yard, so the barrels were suspect. We don’t know what sources of standing water our close neighbors may have, but it doesn’t take much.
Hearing that city government was suggesting that we call them about spraying to kill mosquitoes, I checked their website. There wasn’t a word about the new skeeter situation. I figured that the traditional evening spraying of pesticides would be inappropriate for Aedes, since they’re active when bees and other innocent bystanders are around, but called to find out whether there might be some kind of help I was unaware of.
The pleasant man at the Environmental Health Department, Nick Pederson, confirmed my suspicions about pesticide spraying being a bad strategy for combating Aedes species. The spray has to hit them when they’re flying, he told me, so it would have to be applied during the day and would indeed kill other insects. He said his department was trying to get a Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) product to spray over neighborhoods in hopes of it wafting into water where the bugs can breed, but they had been hampered by the supply chain problems that seem to be everywhere these days. Otherwise he had very little to offer, except for the hope that people would spread the word about getting rid of every bit of standing water in their yards.
He confirmed what I had read about insect repellents, and added the detail that oil of lemon eucalyptus works well, but you have to use a lot of it and apply it often.
A patient who has also been hit badly sent me information about mosquito traps, which I was not aware of. They can be used for official monitoring and research as well as to reduce populations around homes. If we have another bad season next year, I’m thinking in terms of getting one to add to our arsenal, but apparently they’re limited in how much they can do to stop bites, and they may even lure in more females which will then attack any available humans. Here’s an excellent article on traps: https://www.consumerreports.org/health/insect-repellent/mosquito-traps-lures-bug-zappers-a6094812568/
The spike in the mosquito population this year has been life-changing, in a restrictive and nerve-racking and health-damaging way. Yet a number of other insects have gone AWOL. I haven’t personally seen or heard a single cicada, and the grasshoppers that usually pop up everywhere we step at this time of year are mostly absent. There have been a few crickets, but only a few, and no significant cricking to drive us crazy. We didn’t have the usual spring onslaught of big brown miller moths; that’s not too strange, as the population level varies a lot, but I don’t think I saw any.
I would be very worried about all that, except that multiple species of bees, hornets, butterflies, small moths, and ants seem to be doing better than ever. And gnats, so many gnats! I wonder what to make of it all. Climate change must be a factor, but there hasn’t been a dramatic enough rise in temperature from last year to this to explain such a sudden shift in populations. We did have a dry spring and a much wetter summer than average, but was that enough to make the difference? And are people in other neighborhoods seeing the same species in their yards as I? I’ve heard that cicadas have been singing in other parts of town, but everyone seems to be noting an absence of grasshoppers.
If anyone reading this has insights into entomology in central New Mexico, I would love to hear from you. Our state is big on bugs, including some really big bugs, but there are some mysterious absences. I’m particularly curious about what happened to the elm beetles and cave crickets that were our constant companions in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. I bet I haven’t seen an elm beetle in 20 years, but they used to be legion, and the same trees are still present to host them. It’s possible that measures intended to get rid of them were successful and that’s why they’re gone. Not that I miss them, but something is fishy about this.
I do sort of miss cave crickets, which are cute as insects go, and do no harm to us. They used to frequently become snacks for our cats— who delicately avoided the long legs and left them strewn about— but local felines alive now may never have encountered one. I hope none of this means catastrophe is on the way, that is, worse catastrophe than we were already expecting.
Reports from around the world say that insect populations are declining precipitously and that this threatens all life on Earth. In our yard, with gnats and flies buzzing around one’s head and pollinators energetically zipping between flowers, it’s hard to imagine, but it’s true in so many places. In this context, the increasing success of mosquitoes is a maddening irony. Yet another new normal, one more thing to keep us off balance and uneasy in this alternate-reality world we now inhabit.
We do have more birds in our yard than I’ve ever seen before, so something must be going right. Maybe some of those insect-eating bird species who have lost supplies of their favorite foods will adapt to eat mosquitoes. Maybe the blood-sucking midges (yesss!) that prey on mosquitoes will provide some cosmic balance and damp down their numbers. Maybe local humans will be bothered enough to work consistently at control measures. If any of those things happen, they will take time. Meanwhile, I’m going to look funny in my mesh bug suit.
Photo source: The greenj https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ceuthophiluscricket.jpg