Spartan Mosquito Eradicators are selling like hotcakes around the country so I bought two and thought I’d share some thoughts. The devices are just black tubes filled with water, sucrose, salt, and yeast that you hang in your yard. Per the company, mosquitoes are lured to the devices by the CO2 and heat produced by the yeast, crawl inside (through holes in the cap), drink the liquid, crawl back out, then eventually die when their guts rupture.
How the device is supposed to work
The device is supposed to be an “attractive toxic sugar bait” (ATSB), an idea that is over 60-years old. ATSBs are increasingly viewed as a great alternative to spraying because they can be deployed cheaply and, if properly designed, limit the death of other insects. Here’s a nice summary of how they work (also see review by Fiorenzano et al. 2017). The Gates Foundation, in particular, is pushing the use of ATSB devices. The version that Spartan Mosquito makes resembles designs that are rather easy to make at home (e.g.), but incorporates yeast (as per this viral DIY trap from China) as a way to generate carbon dioxide. The inventor argues that the device works because it is designed to take advantage of the following facts:
- Mosquitoes are attracted to contrasting colors.
- Mosquitoes are attracted by CO2.
- Mosquitoes are attracted to heat.
- Mosquitoes regularly ingest carbohydrates from decaying (fermenting) fruit and nectar, and several studies have shown that mosquitoes are attracted to artificial solutions of sucrose and yeast (Oli et al. 2005, Smallegange et al. 2010, Sukumaran et al. 2015, Dhanique et al. 2017).
- Mosquitoes can crawl through holes.
Did they work?
No. I didn’t notice a drop in the number of mosquitoes in my yard. My mosquitoes are largely Asian tiger mosquitoes (Aedes albopictus) and several Culex species. I spend a lot of time outside so I would be in a position to know whether there was a reduction in mosquitoes. The devices simply didn’t work.
Why didn’t they work?
In my opinion, there are four reasons why the Spartan Mosquito Eradicator is unlikely to kill a single mosquito unless it falls from the tree and lands on one.
First, I don’t think the concoction inside the device is attracting mosquitoes. If it were, I would expect to see mosquitoes congregating around the device. I didn’t see a single mosquito, ever. As for reasons why the fermenting liquid isn’t attractive, it might be because the yeast runs out of sucrose in less than ten days (probably just two), so it’s just not producing enough carbon dioxide to fool mosquitoes into thinking it’s a bird or mammal. I’d guess that even on day one there’s not enough CO2 produced by this device. Another reason it’s probably unattractive is that the tube smells like rotting insects after a few days, not a nice piece of fruit or nectar source — again, mosquitoes are probably not going to be fooled.
I find it revealing that the company doesn’t publish data on CO2 production of the devices. One of the owners, Chris Bonner, owns a carbon dioxide meter (he does testing for the EPA). If you are state pesticide regulator, this would be a simple test to run, even off season. Just don’t ask Bonner Analytical Labs to do it.
UPDATE: After almost a year of looking online, I’ve NEVER found a photograph of a deployed Spartan Mosquito Eradicator that shows a mosquito on or even near the device. Not even the company has such a photograph.
Second, the fermentation reactions inside the tube are not going to generate enough heat to make the device a thermal target for mosquitoes. Even if there was a mild temperature elevation on the first day (when there is plenty of sugar), that temperature increase will certainly not last for three months. Notably, the nowhere on the company’s website or marketing materials is there any documentation of a temperature increase. For a company that made $100 million in 2019, you’d think they could spring for a remote food thermometer. It’s just a lie. If you are state pesticide regulator, this would be a simple test to run, even off season.
Third, sodium chloride (table salt) is unlikely to be an effective poison. My pessimism is because adult mosquitoes have salt-sensitive taste receptors just like we do and thus are unlikely to drink a solution that is too salty. I was unable to find a single published article that suggests mosquitoes would drink salty sugar solutions. Similarly, I couldn’t find any literature that said mosquito guts would rupture when forced to imbibe sugar/salt/yeast solutions. Notably (yet again) Spartan Mosquito doesn’t cite a single article on its website or marketing materials in support of its claim. Indeed, when females take a blood meal they are, in effect, ingesting a high-sodium solution. They simply excrete the excess sodium in their urine.
Why, then, does the company use sodium chloride as the active ingredient, when even a quick internet search would reveal it is poor choice? It turns out that the company initially used boric acid as a poison. I’ve uncovered two types of evidence for this. One is that “orthoboric acid” (not sodium chloride) is listed in the patent application. Another is a a video of the inventor/co-owner (Jeremy Hirsch) describing the poison as “boron or borax” to the Hattiesburg (Mississippi) City Council in April 2017; he doesn’t mention a salt version. I think he first settled on borax (which is cheap and easy to find) because he likely read, sometime in 2015 or 2016, an article in the New York Times titled, “Brewing up double-edged delicacies for mosquitoes“. In one part of the article there’s a description of an experiment that used boric acid to control malaria-transmitting mosquitoes in Africa. I think this was the article because Mr Hirsch often mentions in interviews that he thought he could improve upon what the Gates Foundation was doing (described more fully in Müller et al. 2010).
My guess is that at some point Mr Hirsch was told by the EPA that he wouldn’t get approval for the borax version unless he had valid efficacy data. So he switched to sodium chloride, which made his device eligible for an exemption to FIFRA 25(b) regulations: this allowed him to sell it in almost every state without needing any efficacy data. I.e., the Spartan Mosquito Eradicator can be sold even if it doesn’t work. Plus salt is cheaper than boric acid so he could make a higher profit.
One curious part of the sodium chloride usage is how the company describes the mechanism of action: the mosquito gut “ruptures” in response to sharp crystals of sodium chloride. Here’s how the company describes it to a customer on Facebook:
Even if you could fool a mosquito into ingesting a saline solution, this mode of action is improbable. Sodium chloride is ridiculously soluble in water so you’d need to have an extremely high concentration for salt to crystalize out of a solution. A 1% solution isn’t going to crystalize. I’m guessing the advertising was initially crafted to describe how boric acid kills insects and they decided to keep the wording because it sounds dramatic and, they found, many Americans found it convincing.
As an aside, just in case an EPA regulator chances upon this post, listing sodium chloride as the active ingredient is a violation of the 25(b) exemption granted to this device. I.e., the company has zero data showing that sodium chloride is killing mosquitos so salt cannot be listed as an active ingredient. Moreover, Spartan Mosquito admits that salt is not the active ingredient when it says that mosquito’s guts are ruptured by the yeast’s CO2 emissions. Here’s the Jeremy Hirsch’s own wording (see video): “When they go in and they consume the material basically the material with the yeast and the sugar is constantly producing CO2 and mosquitoes have no ability to expel excess gas.” Therefore, the company has misled the EPA as well as dozens of state regulators. I personally cannot understand how the Mississippi Bureau of Plant Industry ever allowed this sham of a product to be OK’d for sale in the first place. Truly a mystery.
Fourth, the holes in the cap are too small (5/32″) to allow mosquitoes to enter, at least with regard to mosquitoes in search of rotting fruit. There’s not a huge literature on what size holes mosquitoes can crawl through, but Dickerson et al. (2018) found that only 1 out of 100 female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes went through an 8-mm hole after 1 hour when presented with a host. Although a hungry female mosquito might squeeze itself through a small hole in search of a warm mammal (Bidlingmayer 1959), I doubt that they would do the same merely for some rotting sugar water. Or certainly not at a frequency that control a population of mosquitoes.
Here’s a video of the device in action (inside an aquarium filled with hundreds of mosquitoes). Below is a screen grab of the video:
My guess is that not even a single mosquito in the video entered the device — they just died over the course of several days from starvation and desiccation. It would be nice to know whether the company filmed it exactly as above (with holes hidden) or whether the company cropped out the holes after filming. The company wouldn’t respond when I asked. But even if the company shows a mosquito or two entering, if there were hundreds present in the aquarium, that’s an indication that the device isn’t going to work outside. I.e., if a yard has, say, 10,000 mosquitoes, having a dozen or so visit the device is not going to kill enough to be noticeable. And, as mentioned above, it’s unlikely that those rare mosquitoes entering the device are actually drinking the fluid (that would have to be demonstrated with an experiment).
I think a fundamental problem of the Spartan Mosquito Eradicator is that in a typical yard mosquitoes have plenty of nectar sources already, and perhaps also plenty of fruit. So even if mosquitoes could be coerced to enter small holes under laboratory conditions of starvation, they are simply not going to do that in the real world. For an experiment that underscores this issue, please see Beier et al. 2012.
Why do people buy them?
People buy Spartan Mosquito Eradicators for the same reason that people bought snake oil — they believed the marketing. And people become repeat buyers for the same reason people kept going back for more and more bottles of snake oil — people convince themselves that the device actually worked when in fact they do not. In fact, many avid fans refer to themselves as “believers”, acknowledging that most other people figure out that mosquitoes are not killed by the devices.
It’s not just the truly gullible that become believers. Many people in the United States don’t realize that towns and counties spray insecticides regularly, which lowers mosquito populations to tolerable levels. Other people might just happen to have low mosquito counts in their yards for some other reason (e.g., very little rain prior to setting the devices out in yard). Both of these scenarios can lead a person to conclude, wrongly, that the devices they set up in a yard caused the low mosquito numbers. This is called an illusion of causality, a phenomenon that explains why people become believers in all sorts of strange things (dowsing rods, golf-ball finders, etc.). And then once a person decides the devices work, the power of confirmation bias will continue to reinforce that incorrect conclusion. At this point, no amount of evidence to the contrary is likely to change their belief. E.g., if a Believer in Spartan Mosquito Eradicator gets eaten alive by mosquitoes in her yard, she’ll concoct a reason that somehow removes the blame from the device.
Another category of believer is owners of stores that sell Spartan Mosquito Eradicators. These individuals get a percentage of sales so they are potentially biased, but in my experience speaking with them they seem 100% convinced that the claims on the package must be true (why would the company have mislead them!?). The proof, to them, is that people keep buying the devices (thousands, in some stores). My guess is that people who figure out that the devices are ineffective will just say to themselves, “Well, dang, I just wasted $19.95 but I’m not going to waste any time trying to return the darn thing. And I’m not going to bother the nice family at the store that sold it to me. They’ll just try to sell me a fresh box.”
Psychology might also reveal why Spartan Mosquito Eradicators get so many good reviews on Amazon (3.7-star average). It turns out that a delay between purchase time and review time tends to inflate reviews — people just relax their expectations. This might be a huge effect for Spartan Mosquito Eradicators because some people might let months elapse before they evaluate whether they think they worked. Still, everyone tempted to buy one should really read the 1-star reviews. They are brutal.
As a side note, I find it bizarre that true believers keep buying replacement packs every 90 days. If these people are convinced the devices work they could save a lot of money by just refilling the tubes with fresh ingredients: 2 1/2 tbsp sugar, 1 tsp salt, 1/8 tsp yeast, 1.7 cups warm water. The company is concerned about this scenario and has the following warning: “Spartan Mosquito Eradicators cannot be reused or refilled. Imagine a glass of orange juice sitting on your porch for 3 months. We don’t want people pouring tubes out on the ground and having a house pet consume the materials” (italics added). This is inane.
Deceptive and illegal advertising
The company makes lots of claims, but provides little reassurance that such claims are grounded by reality. Take, for example, the graph on the box that claims to show mosquito populations are all but eliminated in 90 days.
A typical person is going to see this graph and assume that an actual experiment was done. Oddly, no details about this graph are ever given on the website or elsewhere. Who collected the data? Where was it done? When was it done? How was it done? I’ve talked to a lot of people about this graph and I think it shows the number of mosquitoes landing on the company owner’s arm on two different days during an event the company calls, “Case Study CSL4GOV-ZIKA”. Here’s a handout the company distributed (details below):
The document says that a Lamar County official (Joseph Waits) and an etymologist [sic] from the Mississippi Department of Health conducted a study in late 2016. It is worded to imply that the Spartan Mosquito Eradicators deployed in the area eliminated 100% of mosquitoes and that the Mississippi State Department of Health participated and approved of the data. It turns out the reason the final mosquito count was zero was because the State of Mississippi completely nuked the neighborhood with insecticides (on multiple days). The word on the street is that MS Department of Health is was highly displeased about how the document above was worded (lawyers were deployed, in fact).
I’d also like to point out how the company ended the document: “To date, this is the most effective, longest-lasting Zika control response on record anywhere.” That’s a very bold claim. And is a violation of the 25(b) exemption granted to the device. I.e., Spartan Mosquito implies the product can protect against a human disease. The claim is also made online: “Purchase the Spartan Mosquito Bomb and fight the Zika virus!”
The company makes bold efficacy claims, too. For example, it asserts that the Spartan Mosquito Eradicator is better at controlling mosquitoes than pyrethroid spray services, automatic pyrethroid foggers, bug zappers, citronella candles/torches, and DEET repellents.
Finally, the company claims its devices are chemical-free. That’s not true, of course, because all of the ingredients are chemicals (e.g., NaCl, H2O, C12H22O11). Claiming a 25(b)-exempt device is “chemical free” is also illegal. The government also frowns on using images of pregnant women, children, and pets to visually imply that a pesticide device is safe. Here’s an image on the box showing a pregnant woman, a child, and a pet:
It’s not just the company that spreads false, unsubstantiated health claims. Its affiliates and distributors do, too. Here’s a typical post from the primary distributor, WDG Holdings, LLC.
The implication is that you should buy a Spartan Mosquito Eradicator to protect yourself and family from eastern equine encephalitis. It is illegal (under FIFRA guidelines) to claim such protection when there is no credible scientific backing. Yet this distributor’s Facebook posts are almost exclusively claims such as this. These posts help explain why so many customers (feed stores, hardware stores) of the distributor make identical claims.
Another example is a commercial by Hub City West Farm and Garden that was broadcast on Mississippi television in early 2019. It claims Spartan Mosquito Eradicators can protect your family and pets from mosquito-borne diseases. This claim, again, violates FIFRA requirements. And because the claim could result in people not protecting themselves with DEET, the claim is also morally wrong.
I am certain there are scientists out there who have tested these devices and found that they don’t work at all. E.g., it wouldn’t take long to see that mosquitoes aren’t particularly interested in going through the holes in the cap and that if they do they don’t drink the fluid inside. But anyone agreeing to test the devices for the company is prevented by a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) from disclosing the results. Note to those scientists: you can break an NDA if you think the company is engaging in illegal activities (such as false advertising or lying to the EPA).
In addition to misleading consumers, Spartan Mosquito also produced a video ad featuring a father hitting his kids. Astonishing.
Deceptive customer support
The company has a carefully-crafted return policy: “Lights On Distributors [the distributor] does not honor returns due to improper use” (italics mine), and you have to return the product within 30 days. Per hundreds of interactions with 1-star reviewers on Amazon, the company always blames the user. Specifically, Mr Hirsch et al. will insist that the user failed to (1) “deploy” the devices early enough, (2) buy enough units for the size of the property, (3) place them in right spots, (4) place them at the right height in trees, or (5) wait long enough for devices to start working their magic. In some cases, customer is guilty of all of the above. I fully understand that some types of devices (airplanes, e.g.) don’t work if instructions are not followed, but I’d argue that Spartan Mosquito Eradicators is not such a device. The insistence that directions weren’t followed seems like a scheme to prevent people from returning the product and to immunize the company against scam complaints. Here’s a typical response (from Spartan Mosquito’s Facebook page):
If a buyer persists in claiming the devices simply don’t work, the company will ask the customer to call a “Deployment Specialist”, somebody who will call up your street address on a Google satellite map and tell you where you should put the devices (after you buy more). Sometimes the representative (Mr Hirsch himself, perhaps) will even inform the customers that it is really hard to educate the common person on the complex task of deploying the devices, all while referring to the customer as, “Sir” and “Ma’am” (which conveys politeness and annoyance at the same time). These tactics are not just patronizing, they are dishonest. Also, having a stranger examine your property on Google maps is creepy, especially if the interaction is done under duress.
Effects on wildlife
Although Spartan Mosquito Eradicators don’t eradicate mosquitoes, they do seem effective at killing non-target arthropods that are attracted to sugar and yeast. Below are photographs and IDs of the some of victims I’ve found inside.
Not surprisingly, after several weeks the liquid inside becomes a bubbling, charnel pit. And some of the visitors clearly lay eggs before they die because you can find larvae writhing around (video below). Some of these larvae are spotted-winged Drosophila (Drosophila suzukii), a rather bad economic pest. If you live near an orchard or berry farm, you most definitely should find that alarming.
Spartan Mosquito Eradicators also attract a lot of insects that are too large to fit through the holes. Two examples are below. I’ve heard they attract squirrels, too, which could be attracted to the sugar but might also enjoy eating the dead insects (they give off a rather pungent odor).
Illegal export (possibly)
I’m not positive, but I don’t think Spartan Mosquito is allowed to test this device in other countries. This document suggests that’s exactly what they’ve done:
Per the document, mosquito counts were conducted by a certified researcher, Jesse Leopold, who is also the club owner. Per his LinkedIn page, Mr Leopold has a BA in economics. Maybe he minored in entomology.
Are “Sock-It Skeeters” any better?
Sock-It Skeeters are cheaper versions of the Spartan Mosquito Eradicator. The prototype is pictured below, followed by the version that is in stores now.
What can be done?
I didn’t just write this post to satisfy geeky people’s curiosity. I think this company should be stopped and its assets frozen so that a class-action lawsuit can return the money to swindled customers. Its products put people at risk of contracting mosquito-borne diseases, and this consequence will be especially horrifying if they are allowed to sell in countries where such diseases are orders of magnitude more common. So if you have made it this far in my long post, please consider helping me shut down Spartan Mosquito.
- Share this post. Especially on Facebook and Nextdoor. If you share on Twitter and want to tag me, I’m @colinpurrington.
- Leave a review on the Facebook page of either Spartan Mosquito Eradicator or Sock-It Skeeter. This is worthwhile even though they’ll likely delete it.
- Leave a review at the Better Business Bureau.
- File a complaint at Truth in Advertising.
- Ask your state regulators to yank the company’s permission to sell.
- File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.
- Contact your State Attorney General.
- If you’re a journalist, write an article. It would be really funny to reference the A.D.E. 651 if you have the space.
- If you’re an employee, be a whistleblower and expose the company. You can get money under some types of subsequent litigation.
By the way, here are photographs of the owners, Jeremy Hirsch (president) and Chris Bonner (vice-president).
- In November 2019, Indiana, issued a “stop-sell” order on Spartan Mosquito Eradicators, citing (1) false and misleading advertising claims made by the company, (2) health claims made by the company and its affiliates, and (3) complete absence of trustworthy efficacy data. The state joins Connecticut, Idaho, New Mexico, South Dakota, and D.C. as places where the device may not be legally sold.
- Multiple states have informed me that they are conducting investigations into both the Spartan Mosquito Eradicator and the Sock-It Skeeter.
- I’m not allowed to reveal details, but the Environmental Protection Agency is conducting two separate investigations into Spartan Mosquito. These investigations may make the various state investigations unnecessary.
- There is also an investigator for a consumer advocacy organization looking into the matter. Hopefully this organization will hook up with the Federal Trade Commission and perhaps some state attorneys general, as it often does.
- There’s an insect-focused professional society that is considering making a public statement about the devices (i.e., that there is no evidence that they work).
- Both Amazon and Lowe’s are reevaluating whether to allow the sale of Spartan Mosquito Eradicators (currently, neither company sells the Sock-It Skeeter).
If I’ve missed anything, please drop me a line.