Slap. Scratch scratch scratch. Slap, slap.
All right, calm down. Unless you are headed to Brazil or Puerto Rico, your chances of winning the Powerball are greater than getting the Zika virus right now.
To date, not a single person has been known to contract the disease from a mosquito within the United States. (There have been four confirmed cases in Kansas and seven in Missouri of travelers returning with the virus.) And when it does arrive in the Kansas City area, your chances of getting it will still be slim.
But that hasn’t stopped people from calling Phillip Howe, owner of Mosquito Squad of Greater Kansas City & Lawrence. He has seen a big uptick this spring in the number of calls about Zika, which can cause pregnant women to have babies with unusually small heads.
“We won’t see it for a while because the Asian Tiger isn’t predominant here,” Howe said of the mosquito that transmits the virus. “You have to have a populous with the Zika virus where the mosquito bites someone with it, then bites someone else.”
That said, mosquitoes are nothing to brush aside … figuratively that is.
According to the World Health Organization, mosquitoes kill 725,000 people a year, making them the most deadly animal on earth by a long shot. By comparison, snakes are the next deadliest animal, killing 50,000 people a year. The worst mosquito-borne diseases — including malaria, which kills half a million annually — are mostly in Africa and Asia.
Different species of mosquitoes spread different diseases, and there are more than 2,500 species of mosquitoes throughout the world, said Rick Miller, agriculture agent with Johnson County Research Extension. The Kansas Biological Survey has recorded 54 species in the Kansas City area, with the most common being the culex.
“I was shocked when (the survey) told me there were that many here,” Miller said. “Most of the time when we’re getting bitten that’s where it’s from — the culex. My guess is there are half a dozen or 10 species that are very common here.”
Here’s a primer about mosquitoes and how best to keep them at bay.
Why do I get bitten?
Viruses aside, mosquitoes can ruin a picnic faster than potato salad gone bad.
“Three or four people can be bitten by a mosquito, and one person will have no reaction, another will have a mild reaction, while a third will react severely to the bite,” Miller said. “There are big differences in how we attract and react to them.”
Jerry Butler, professor emeritus at the University of Florida, told WebMD that only 1 in 10 people are highly attractive to mosquitoes, and that’s due mostly to genetics.
According to Butler, scientists are studying 400 biological compounds emitted by the human body to learn what attracts mosquitoes. So far they have sussed out that mosquitoes are drawn to people with high concentrations of uric acid, steroids or cholesterol on their skin.
Carbon dioxide, which mosquitoes can smell from as far as 164 feet, is another big draw. Big people, active people and pregnant women exhale higher than average amounts of carbon dioxide and therefore attract more mosquitoes.
Only female mosquitoes bite. They need the protein in human blood to lay eggs. Those eggs can last eight to nine years, surviving through several winters. Mosquitoes have a keen sense of where moisture tends to collect.
“They say, ‘Hey there’s been water here at one point,’ so they lay their eggs and then those eggs will lay dormant until there’s water,” said Howe, adding that they can proliferate quickly. “If you have a perfect scenario, a female will lay 300 eggs, and half those eggs will become adult females that lay 300 eggs within a week and half, and half of those are females and so on. So within a month you can have more than a million mosquitoes.”
The good news is there are multiple ways to fight mosquitoes.
Miller tells people that their best measure is to eliminate standing water. If you have tarps covering stuff, make sure they’re tight so they don’t collect water. Scour your yard for clogged gutters, bird baths, toys, pet dishes, plant pots, upside down Frisbees, anything that holds water, then flip them over and clean them out. Do this at least once a week.
“If you have standing water for a week, you can have a breeding ground,” Howe said. “They can lay eggs in as little as a bottle cap of water.”
Fountains are not a problem, Howe said. Mosquitoes need oxygen, so they attach themselves to the underside of the surface of placid water where they can breathe. They can’t withstand the motion of burbling water.
For water that you can’t tip, such as a rain barrel, Miller recommends Mosquito Dunks, doughnut-shaped larvicide tablets that can be bought at most major retailers.
“The active ingredient is very safe for pets, birds and other wildlife, while interrupting the life cycle of the mosquito,” he said.
Spray them away
Another way to protect again mosquitoes is to spray a repellent on the skin. This is most important at dawn and dusk, when mosquitoes are most active in the Midwest.
The gold standard is anything that comprises DEET as 25 percent to 30 percent of its active ingredients, Miller said.
“That does a really good job for six to eight hours,” he said. “In a lighter formulation, like 10 percent, they won’t last as long.
A botanical derivative called oil of lemon eucalyptus at a high concentration – 25 to 30 percent – is also very effective.”
Avon’s Skin So Soft offers some protection, he said, “but it’s very mild and wouldn’t be my first choice.”
Once the mosquitoes have hatched into adults, only a pesticide will kill them.
Mosquito Squad uses a couple of different sprays to kill mosquitoes. The more traditional product is a chrysanthemum derivative made by BASF. It costs about $70 per treatment for a half acre or less.
“It knocks them down by about 85 to 90 percent for three weeks,” Howe said.
Some people don’t like those sprays because they can be toxic to pets, fish and beneficial insects, like bees. So the company also uses an all-natural product made of essential oils that kills 70 percent to 75 percent of mosquitoes for two weeks.
Insecticides should be sprayed in places where adult mosquitoes spend a lot of their downtime, such as in the holes in tree trunks and in boxwoods, ivy, evergreens, anything with heavy foliage that is cool and can hold moisture.
“Even mulch can be a good place for them,” Howe said.
You can also use do-it-yourself spray pesticides, but read the label carefully and use them with caution.
“As long as you mix and use them according to the label and don’t get them all over yourself, they can be helpful,” Miller said. “But that one spray won’t take care of all your issues.
“If you spray insecticide on shrubs and empty out all standing water and use dunks and repellents, if you do all those things together, that’s as effective a way as possible to control mosquitoes and make sure your family is safe.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, using insect repellents containing DEET should not be harmful if label directions are carefully followed. The only exception is infants 2 months or younger. They should be protected with mosquito netting over their carrier.
The CDC recommends the following when using repellents with DEET.
▪ Use just enough of it to cover exposed skin and clothing.
▪ Use it only when outside, then wash it off with soap immediately upon going inside.
▪ Use it only on adults, children and infants older than 2 months of age.
▪ When applying it to your face, spray it onto your hands first and rub it onto your face.
▪ Do not allow children under 10 years of age to apply it themselves.
▪ Do not apply to young children’s hands or around their eyes or mouth.
▪ Do not breathe it in, swallow it or get it into eyes; DEET is toxic if swallowed.
▪ Do not put repellent on wounds or broken skin.