The Mosquito: Public (Health) Enemy #1

Mosquitoes! What are they good for? Besides transmitting more deadly diseases than any other creature on the planet: malaria (claims an average of a million lives a year), West Nile virus, and dengue fever (which used to be called “break bone” fever because it sometimes causes severe muscle & joint pain that feels like bones are breaking) just to name a few – absolutely nothing. Well, birds, bats & frogs do love to eat them.

Did you know, only the female mosquito has the ability to bite? Male mosquitoes are vegetarian – they survive off of plant nectar. So do female mosquitoes, until they mate. Female mosquitos drink blood so they can nourish their egg-bearing bodies. Blood is full of proteins and amino acids, which makes it the perfect prenatal supplement for growing mosquito eggs. She bites with a long flexible snout (imagine a micro-mini elephant trunk), which has two sharp tubes – one injects an enzyme, which prevents blood from clotting & reduces pain (for the host), the other sucks the blood out (she can consume twice her body weight in blood). After she feeds she has the ability to lay up to 200 eggs in as little as one tablespoon of standing, stagnant water.

Does she have a favorite type??

In, short? Yes. Even though mosquitoes prefer birds, horses and cattle – humans don’t even make the top three. “One in 10 people are highly attractive to mosquitoes,” reports Jerry Butler, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of Florida. The attraction begins long before the mosquito lands — they home in on their prey via carbon dioxide emissions. Mosquitoes can smell carbon dioxide from an impressive distance of up to 164 feet (that’s the height of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris!). Usually, the larger the person, the greater the carbon dioxide emission. Pregnant women are also at increased risk, as they produce a greater-than-normal amount of exhaled carbon dioxide.

A 1972 study led to the theory that mosquitos are also attracted to certain blood types (type O being their favorite) but further studies have led scientists to believe it’s your ‘secretor status’ that attracts mosquitos. Some of us secrete chemicals tied to our blood type through our skin — 80% of us are secretors. Scientists have isolated proteins on mosquitoes’ antennae that detect chemical markers emitted from people’s skin. Scientists are still trying to figure out why these pests prefer one blood type over another.

In addition to carbon dioxide, and your skin secretions mosquitoes find victims at closer range by smelling the ammonia, lactic acid, and salt expelled via their sweat. Because strenuous exercise increases the buildup of lactic acid and heat in your body, it will most likely also make you even more attractive to these insects as will drinking alcohol (especially beer), wearing dark clothing (red, dark blue & black), and floral perfume.  Also, avoid being outside during a full moon – a recent study by the American Mosquito Control Association (AMCA) has shown mosquito activity increases 500% when the moon is full.

Protect Yourself

Even though you may be genetically destined to become a mosquitoes’ prenatal vitamin, you can take precautions to prevent being bitten. A 2018 report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states that vector borne illnesses (diseases from mosquito, tick & flea bites) have tripled in the United States Between 2004 and 2016. You should use an insect repellent that has at least 23.8% DEET (your best bet) it will protect you for up to five hours. If you are also wearing sunscreen (as you should when you’re out in the sun), put the sunscreen on first, then apply the repellent after the sunscreen has dried. Mosquitoes can bite through some clothing, so spray some repellent on your clothes, but never underneath your clothes. Bug spray with DEET won’t damage cotton, wool or nylon, but you shouldn’t apply to spandex, rayon and other synthetic materials. When applying the repellent to your face, spray it into your hands then rub it on to your face & neck – never spray directly in your face. As you apply it to children, spray into your hands first before applying it anywhere on their bodies.

A brisk breeze is a challenge to mosquitoes (they really aren’t very good fliers). Remember, mosquitoes find us via the carbon dioxide we breathe and how we smell. So, when there is a stiff breeze blowing by us, the mosquitoes can’t find us, they get confused and they stay clear of the ‘no fly zone’. The bigger the fan you use and the smaller the area that you’re trying to keep mosquitos away from, the better your chances of keeping them away.

Despite all of the precautions you take, you may still get bitten. It’s important to know the signs of the common vector-borne illnesses: fever, head and body ache, rash, vomiting and diarrhea. Not everyone has the same symptoms, and some people experience none at all. But, if you have recently been bitten and begin to feel ill, it’s best to get a doctor’s opinion.

5-Minute Essential Oil Bug Spray Recipe

This recipe takes just seconds to mix up and can be varied based on what you have available. I’ve included several variations so you can try whichever one you have the ingredients for. If you have the ingredients to make it, this is the best bug spray recipe I’ve found. This recipe uses essential oils, which are highly effective for natural bug protection.

There are some concerns about putting these directly on the skin, especially on children. I prefer to use this recipe on clothing or gear instead of directly on the skin. Any combination of these essential oils will work: citronella, clove, lemongrass, rosemary, tea tree, cajeput, eucalyptus, cedar, catnip, geranium, lavender, mint. All of those have insect and mosquito-repelling properties, and I’ve included the mixture I use below. For this recipe I use 100 drops of essential oil total with a mixture of various oils. If you don’t have one, you can leave it out or use a mixture of the others in its place.

To save time, I’ve also just used a pre-mixed kid-safe essential oil blend formulated to repel insects in place of the other oils in the recipe below. If you’d rather not DIY, Badger also makes a great natural bug spray with essential oils.

Homemade Bug Spray Ingredients

Homemade Bug Spray Instructions
  • Place essential oils in a glass spray bottle. Add vodka or alcohol and shake well to combine.
  • Pour in witch hazel and shake to combine.
  • Add ½ tsp vegetable glycerin if using. This is not necessary but helps everything stay combined.
  • Add water and shake again. Shake before each use, as the oils and water will naturally separate some over time.
How to Use

I keep a bottle by the back door for easy application, and also in our first aid kit when camping or hiking. I also carry this homemade anti-itch cream in case of the random bug bite!