A closeup of a mosquito about to bite human skin
mosquitoes

Am I a Mosquito Magnet? What's the Science Behind Mosquito Attraction?

What attracts mosquitoes to us? We talk to experts in the field of entomology to find out.

That buzzing sound near your ear is not a bee. It’s a thirsty mosquito. And it’s out for blood. 

There are about 3,500 different species of mosquitoes in the world. According to the CDC, there are over 200 types of mosquitoes that live in the continental United States and U.S. territories.

But how do you know which mosquito will bite you?

The first thing to note is that the female mosquito is the only one that bites. They bite people and animals to get blood to reproduce and develop their eggs.

Male mosquitoes on the other hand, do not bite people and animals. Their mouthparts are not suitable for piercing skin and they prefer to eat flower nectar.

Despite how annoying they are, we need mosquitoes. "We've been trying to kill mosquitoes since the first BBQ, and they bit us. We would love to see them eradicated, but if we eradicate mosquitoes - we're doomed. They are such an important key species that everything feeds on. Birds, fish, bats. You eliminate mosquitoes, we're gonna have a big problem, but to us, they're just pests,” says Chris Paparo, Manager of Marine Sciences Center at Stony Brook University at Southampton.

Why do mosquitoes bite some people more than others?

Natasha Agramonte is a public health entomologist and has conducted mosquito research for over 15 years, particularly within the area of mosquito repellents and insecticides. 

“A little bit of [being a mosquito magnet] is influenced by what you eat and what you drink,” she explained to LX News. “If you are drinking alcohol, you become more attractive to mosquitoes, so that's always relevant over the summer - just being more careful and putting on repellent and long sleeves when you're out, [or] drinking outdoors.”

Body odor and carbon dioxide when we breathe also make us more attractive to these bugs. Mosquitoes can use that to find us from far away, according to Agramonte.

“Mosquitoes are attracted to color, movement, heat, and skin odors,” said Autumn Angelus, the principal biologist for the New Jersey State Office of Mosquito Control Coordination. 

“Darker colors have shown to be more attractive to mosquitoes than lighter colors for example. So, dress appropriately before going outdoors.”

But it also boils down to skin chemistry and genetics. Everyone’s skin is different and some people’s skin naturally repels mosquitoes. A study published in PLOS One Journal in 2015, “demonstrated an underlying genetic component to the human odor profile - a genetic difference that is detectable by mosquitoes through odor and used to select a host.” Talk about luck.

“Those odors that we're putting off can influence mosquito behavior in one of three ways. They usually either attract mosquitoes to us, they block us from being visible [or] smell visible to the mosquitoes, or they push them away, which are the repellents,” said Agramonte.

Just like other insects, mosquitoes thrive in warmer climates. They are both aquatic and terrestrial animals, starting out their life cycle in water, and ending as flying, terrestrial adults. With that in mind, does climate change impact mosquitoes and the diseases they carry?

“Climate change is certainly a challenge in the mosquito control world. The ‘mosquito season’ has extended, starting earlier and ending later in [New Jersey].” Higher temperatures encourage faster development and more efficient replication of some mosquito-borne pathogens, meaning increased circulation of disease,” said Angelus.

According to the CDC, in areas with ongoing spread of chikungunya, dengue, West Nile, or Zika viruses, people may be at increased risk of getting infected with a virus. 

Angelus is sampling for mosquito larvae using a “mosquito dipper.” It offers a standardized measurement of water to be taken to check for mosquito larvae presence/absence or count how many larvae are present per “dip.” In this photo she is using an eyedropper to remove larvae from the dipper cup to save for later identification. [Photo credit: Charles Angelus]

Luckily for our legs and arms, not all mosquitoes carry diseases.

After a hurricane or increased rainfall, mosquito eggs from previous storms can hatch. Most of these mosquitoes are nuisance mosquitoes, though, and they do exactly what their name says - bother people. They don’t don’t spread viruses that make people sick. 

And only certain mosquitoes carry and transmit certain pathogens. For example, West Nile Virus is transmitted by the Culex species mosquitoes 

“Typically they only transmit based on what they bite. So they have to bite someone or something, because they transmit a lot of diseases from other animals to us. But it's very species specific,” said Agramonte.

Zika virus is transmitted to people mostly through the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito like aegypti and albopictus. These mosquitoes are also known for spreading dengue and chikungunya viruses.

The CDC says West Nile Virus cases are rising across the country and currently has a tracker for human disease cases like West Nile, Dengue and Zika in the United States.

How to Avoid Mosquito Bites

To protect yourself against mosquito bites, there are a number of things you can do.

The first is to use repellents on your clothing or skin. Angelus recommends using only EPA recommended repellants found here

You can also use products that contain oil of lemon eucalyptus, which is one of the only natural oil repellents that is EPA registered.

If you buy bug spray, make sure the ingredients contain DEET, which is effective in repelling potentially disease-carrying insects and ticks. Products containing Picaridin are also effective in repelling mosquitoes, ticks and other insects. Permethrin is another repellent that can be used on clothing if you’re going hiking or plan to be outside for an extended period of time. But it should never be applied directly on the skin.

Mosquitoes can bite through clothes, especially if it’s tight fitting (like skinny jeans or leggings) or thin. Think about wearing loose clothing or any material that’s harder for mosquitoes to bite through, like denim jeans. And the most important tip of all: wear long-sleeve clothing and cover any gaps in your clothing where the sneaky bugs can bite.

Remove any standing water around your home or in any water-filled containers where mosquitoes can breed.

“There are many invasive mosquito species in the US. The most infamous being Aedes albopictus [also known as] the Tiger Mosquito. This mosquito specializes in utilizing “container habitats” like tires, trash, etc. They only fly about 1000 ft from their habitat, so if you’re being “bugged” by them, be sure to take a look around and eliminate standing water,” says Angelus.

The CDC also provides tips to protect you and your family from mosquito bites in the U.S. and overseas.

“As mundane as many folks think that mosquitoes are, they’re really very interesting and beautiful creatures,” said Angelus.