Tag Archives: health

Neighborhood Mosquito Watch

During a run this week I passed an abandoned, 30-gallon aquarium with easily 10,000 larvae doing their thing (wriggling). I came back later, took some photographs (on my Instagram soon if you’re into that), and then dumped it, sending the larvae to their deaths but also releasing a cloud of perhaps 100 newly-eclosed adults. I suspect the aquarium had been there for years, pumping Asian tiger mosquitoes (Aedes albopictus) into the neighborhood. Given the aquarium’s location at the edge of busy parking lot I’m sure that thousands of people have looked at it and thought, “Huh. Looks like an abandoned aquarium full of dirty water. Next to a Christmas tree. I bet there’s a story there!”, and then moved on with their lives.

Abandoned aquarium with mosquitoes

In case you are unsure what an infestation looks like, the next two photographs show what the adults, larvae, and eggs look like. Asian tiger mosquitoes lay eggs singly on the sides of containers or on moist objects floating on the water. They can last over a year as an egg, waiting for conditions to be just right.

Male Asian tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus) with larvae

Female Asian tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus) with larvae and eggs

Here’s a sample of the water I pulled from the tank.

But not all the eggs were Aedes albopictus (there are 60 species in PA alone). Here’s a raft of eggs in the aquarium from a different species (Culex sp.). The raft is lodged on a leaf but normally it just floats around until the larvae pop out. Anopheles (another common genus) has eggs that are deposited singly but float with the help of cute little life preservers.

Raft of mosquito eggs

But that’s not all! Yesterday I found a recycling bin behind a church with similar numbers of larvae. Given the amount of leaves decomposing in the bottom I suspect it has been like this for at least the whole summer. Again, it really is strange that nobody did anything about it. It’s right next to a sidewalk that gets lots of traffic (at least on Sundays) and is probably 10′ away from a playground at an infant/toddler daycare center. Poor kids. (I dumped it.)

Recycling bin with stagnant water

Given how much people hate mosquitoes it left me thinking how the public outreach about mosquito control has failed on the most basic level. Everyone should know enough about mosquito biology to know how and where they breed, and everyone should feel empowered to do something. Being proactive is so much better than adopting what I think is the common view, “Well if the mosquitoes get bad enough I’m sure the government will spray insecticides from planes.

All it would take would be a nicely worded message from a town official to mobilize residents into a mosquito watch. Something like, “If you see mosquito larvae swimming around in a container when you are out walking your dog, please turn the container upside down or alert the owner about it. Thanks.”

For more of my thoughts on mosquito control, please see, “How to rid your yard of mosquitoes.”

Using mosquitoes’ sweet tooth to control Zika transmission

Now that everyone wants to kill mosquitoes that transmit Zika virus, can somebody please make a transgenic plant that expresses mosquitocidal Bti (Bacillus thuringiensis subsp. israelensis) toxins? Just stick the Bti gene behind a phloem-specific promoter so that the protein gets pumped into the nectar. Then when males and female mosquitoes drink (and almost all do), they die. You could then plant acres of the modified plant nearby towns to protect people from Zika (and anything else transmitted by mosquitoes). The beauty of this method is that you could reduce populations of mosquitoes from an area without spraying, and do so for generations if you modified nectar-producing perennials. I know it’s trendy to dislike GMOs (like vaccines), but I think many people would support them under these circumstances.

And yes, apparently Bti toxins can kill adult mosquitoes (including Aedes aegypti), not just larvae. Klowden and Bulla 1984 demonstrated it, for example. And yes, Aedes aegypti drinks nectar (and probably fruit juice).

Of course, even if somebody had the incentive to make such a plant, it could take a decade to wade through the red tape involved in getting non-regulated status from governments. So if you want to do something today, leave out containers of sugar water (10%) that is laced with Bti (e.g., Mosquito Dunks, which you can buy online or at hardware stores). Maybe add something floral to attract them, too. (A review of olfactory cues suggests that imitation cherry and apple can work. If you don’t have those sitting around, I’d wager a few drops of jasmine flavoring or rose water would work, and those are easily found at local stores.) Even if the Bti doesn’t immediately kill the adult, adults sucking up a big sugar meal can transfer the bacteria to water where they lay eggs, and thus eventually cause the death of any larvae that develop. Note that bees and ants might get interested in your sugar water, but the Bti is completely harmless to them.

And if you don’t want to use Bti, there are plenty of articles on using sugar baits laced with insecticides (e.g., Qualis et al. 2013, Junilla et al. 2015). They really can work: mosquitoes absolutely love sugar and will drink up poisons in the process. These are great if you don’t want to use crop dusters to destroy all insects in the area.

If you have kids and want to entertain them, add food dyes to the sugar bait and then challenge them to find mosquitoes with bellies full of sugar water. For older kids that might be amused by actual science, use two dyes to test attractiveness of two different volatiles (or different sugars). It’s probably rare to recapture one right after a nectar meal, but when distended they reveal gut contents nicely.

Colin Purrington Photography: Insects &emdash; White-footed woods mosquito (Psorophora ferox) nectaring on goldenrod

FYI, the photograph above is a white-footed woods mosquito (Psorophora ferox), not Aedes aegypti. It doesn’t transmit Zika, but illustrates to the unbelieving that mosquitoes drink nectar. 

Teaching kids about sugar content of beverages

One out of three kids these days is overweight or obese, and consumption of sugary drinks is a big reason why. Sugary drinks also cause tooth decay (I know, big surprise there), and might even cause kids to be aggressive (or if kids think sugar has that effect, it might have a placebo effect). So I got to wondering what public schools could do … and I think that making a “sugar content” poster in kindergarten is is the way to go. The idea is to construct a display for the hallway or classroom wall that visually shows how much sugar is hidden in common beverages.

This project would fit in perfectly with most state standards (for example, see page 10 in Health Education Content Standards for California Public Schools). And because it includes numbers (of teaspoons), teachers can use the poster content to visually drive discussions about addition and subtraction. If this poster was done in a fun way, the experience might vaccinate kids against over-consumption of sugary drinks for the remainder of their lives. The parallel to brushing teeth might be appropriate: you teach kids how to do it before school … even though the chemistry of decay is beyond their understanding: if you don’t brush and floss, your breath will be nasty and you’ll lose your teeth. Like many health lessons, that’s best taught to young kids.

There are lots of ways to make the poster, but what I like about the one above is that water (no sugar) and plain milk (contains lactose … which is a sugar) are included. There should also be a sampling of common juices (apple, orange, e.g.) because they are loaded with sugar. And just for scale, it might be good to show how many teaspoons of sugar are in a typical bag of candy (e.g., Skittles).

Poster titles matter here, just like they do at a scientific meeting, in that they can provide a take-home message. “Rethink your drink” is a popular title (it rhymes), but I prefer something that confronts the point more directly. Here are some ideas: “Don’t drink dessert all day”, “Don’t drink your dessert”, or “Sugary drinks are candy drinks”. If snark is allowed in your district, then something like, “Sugary drinks are a sweet way to gain weight and rot teeth!” The idea is to be direct and memorable and to not shy away from the point: sugary drinks can (and do!) make kids fat.

If you want some background information relevant to lesson plans on sugar for K-3 levels, here are some resources from BrainPOP. If you’re looking for more examples of posters, here’s a Pinterest board where I collect them:

Pinterest board Educating kindergartners about sugary drinks on Pinterest.