Health officials love to remind people to use DEET and other CDC-approved repellents, but they tend to shy away from telling the public what doesn’t work. As a result, millions of people adopt ineffective techniques and gimmicky devices. These people are not only subjecting themselves to annoying mosquito bites, they are increasing the likelihood that family members will contract West Nile virus disease,Zika virus disease, eastern equine encephalitis, and other mosquito-borne diseases. So I thought I’d make a list of the top myths and scams just in case skeptical people are Googling.
1. Mosquito-repelling plants
Despite the claims of thousands of posts on Facebook and Pinterest, there are no plants that, when planted around your yard, repel mosquitoes. And, just to be clear, the plant marketed as “mosquito plant” does not repel mosquitoes. I know this is deeply upsetting news to many plant fans. I’m just the messenger.
2. Ultrasonic devices and apps
None of these have been found to work (details). It’s too bad. It would be really cool if they did. The FTC has taken some companies to court. There is, however, a device called The Mosquito that is effective at repelling teenagers.
3. Bags of water suspended from ceiling
This belief is common in Mexico, Central America, Spain, and certain pockets in the U.S. south. It’s a variation of the equally-ineffective tradition of hanging bags of water to repel house flies. Some people insist that you have to add coins (and just the right number).
Nope — even when mixed with other ingredients like beer and epsom salts, spraying Listerine around your yard won’t repel mosquitoes. Just another internet rumor started by somebody with too much free time.
5. Citronella candles
Citronella candles only seem to work if you surround yourself with a lot of them, ideally in a protected area so that wind doesn’t dissipate the smoke. Similarly, Tiki torches that burn citronella-laced oil are ineffective. They smell great, though. The pleasant smell most likely contributes to the strong placebo effect. People absolutely believe they work even though they do not.
6. Bounce dryer sheets
Per one study fungus gnats (which don’t bite) were mildly repelled by dryer sheets. I’d wager these sheets might actually be attractive to mosquitoes (some species home in on perfumes).
7. Wrist bands with natural oils
At best, wrist bands will reduce the number of mosquito bites on your wrist. But they will not emit enough volatile compounds to shield the rest of you. NB: currently there are no wristbands that contain DEET or other CDC-approved repellent. Details.
8. Stickers laced with natural oils
Stickers only prevent mosquitoes from biting the flesh directly underneath the sticker. You’d need an awful lot of stickers for full protection. If you can rock that look, I say go for it. Note, same conclusion for the stickers that claim to infuse your bloodstream with B1.
These devices are adored by people because they make a satisfying crackle when an insect meets its end. Indeed, people who own these seem to delight in the attention these things get when friends come over in the evening. But if you dump all the carcasses on a table and sort them (good family fun), you’ll find that only a small fraction of the victims will be mosquitoes. In one study, 0.22% were mosquitoes. Mostly you’ve just electrocuted thousands of small, defenseless moths and night-active beetles. That’s a lot of bad karma. More details.
14. Spartan Mosquito Eradicators and Sock-It Skeeters
These are a commercial manifestations of the “DIY mosquito killer using soda bottle, yeast, and sugar” that has gone viral on Facebook and YouTube. Like the homemade version, these devices are really good at attracting and breeding fruit flies ( (they lay eggs!), but nothing else. They do not kill mosquitoes. Both devices are made by AC2T, Inc., a Mississippi company. More details.
15. Bats and birds
Sadly, it’s a myth that constructing a bat or bird hotel in your backyard will eliminate your mosquito problem. Bats and birds will certainly eat mosquitoes under some circumstances (e.g., when they are caged with nothing else) but under natural conditions they prefer to eat larger insects. You should still construct bird and bat houses, though. Details.
All of the chemicals are pyrethroids, synthetic neurotoxins that cause almost instant paralysis and death to mosquitoes. Below is the chemical structure for one, permethrin:
Please email me if you think I’ve made an error or if you know that a formulation has changed (which happens). I still haven’t figured out whether companies permit their franchise owners to pick and choose which insecticides to use, so when multiple chemicals are listed above that doesn’t necessarily mean the sprays will contain both.
Are these chemicals safe for humans?
Pyrethroids are relatively safe but not be viewed as harmless. If you spill enough on your skin you might experience itchiness, numbness, nausea, and respiratory problems, among a rather long list adverse events. At very high doses pyrethroids can kill you, a fact known because some people have injected it and in one case because somebody ate food that was cooked in pyrethroid concentrate (it resembles cooking oil). There are also scattered reports that some pyrethroids are carcinogenic and estrogenic but I don’t think such effects are shockingly large, and to date they seem to be restricted to mouse studies. Each pyrethroid listed above has a slightly different toxicity, so to get more information Google the name or read the linked material by clicking on their name.
Are pyrethroids safe for pets?
Dogs and chickens seem to be fine. Cats, however, lack sufficient levels of a liver enzyme that helps detoxify pyrethroids, and can thus they can develop what is called pyrethroid toxicosis. A good indicator of cat sensitivity to pyrethroids is the standard warning of keeping them away from pyrethroid-treated dogs. I.e., if you dose your dog with a large amount of pyrethroids (to kill fleas, e.g.), friendly cats that cuddle with the dog are at risk. If you’d like to see a video of rag doll cat with pyrethroid poisoning (you probably don’t), here’s a video.
Do pyrethroids kill other animals?
For example, the spray kills monarch caterpillars, even weeks later later due to the presence of insecticide dried onto milkweed leaves (Oberhuaser et al. 2006).
And the spray can kill honey bees, even if honey bees are inside their hives when the pyrethroids are spayed (workers bring small amounts back to the hive the following day if they land on treated plants or if they find small puddles of water to drink). Sublethal amounts of pyrethroids can change honey bee behavior and make workers smaller. I would imagine the pyrethroids would end up in the honey, too.
And pyrethroids kill fireflies, which are most active in a yard in the late evening when mosquito-spraying franchises like to fog.
My favorite group of unnoticed insects that are killed by evening pyrethroid applications are solitary bees, of which there are approximately 4,000 species in the United States. These are bees that collect pollen and nectar during the day but spend their evenings and nights in holes (e.g., mason bees) or clamped to low vegetation. E.g., look at this a two-spotted long-horned bee (Melissodes bimaculatus) from my front yard this summer. Everyone has dozens of species of native bees in their yards but few people realize it. But they are amazing pollinators and almost all adorable. So when pesticide applicators claim their pyrethroid sprays “don’t harm bees” or are “bee friendly”, that is entirely untrue. It’s simply a marketing slogan they were taught when they bought the franchise, and they will insist it’s true even when presented with evidence to the contrary.
Anyone using a spraying service is, therefore, killing all of the above and more. Insects are small and easy to ignore, but if you were to go out after a spraying and look very carefully, you’d find thousands of dead insects on the ground. And only an extremely small percentage would be mosquitoes. If you go out immediately after a spraying you can even see the twitching that precedes death (movie). It’s probably not a pleasant way to go.
Pyrethroids can kill ALL arthropods, in fact, not just insects. So if a yard is sprayed, likely 100% of spiders, mites, centipedes, and millipedes would be at risk. In total that could mean tens of thousands of individuals left twitching in treated yards. In one estimate, an acre of land in Pennsylvania contains 425 million animals … and a good portion of them would be killed by pyrethroids.
Another concern with gassing all the arthropods in a yard is that those bird species that eat arthropods will have a lot less to eat. Population levels of swallows and flycatchers, for example, have dropped in last several decades and one explanation is that there are fewer insects to eat.
And then there are fish, which are acutely sensitive to pyrethroids. Franchise owners will generally avoid spraying near people’s fish ponds and bodies of water. Indeed, by law pyrethroids can’t be used near water, though there are many reports of franchises ignoring that regulation. Even if a property doesn’t have a pond or stream, pyrethroids are rather stable in the soil and tend to get washed into nearby streams after rains. It is increasingly accepted that runoff of pyrethroids into creeks can kill fish downstream.
Finally, pyrethroids are toxic to certain earthworms. This is probably especially true for those species that come out onto lawn surfaces in the evening, when pyrethroids are often applied. To be honest, many people don’t really care about earthworms (some hate them) but for people who love aerated lawns it should be pointed out that fogging with pyrethroids might result in dramatically less aeration and dramatically more odor from rotting earthworm carcasses. And, perhaps, result in robins that wonder where all the worms have gone.
Pyrethoids are engineered to last for weeks
As mentioned above in reference to monarchs, pyrethroids adhere to plant surfaces and stay active for weeks, so the risk to all the organisms mentioned above also lasts for weeks. Here’s a nice (and hilarious) description of pyrethroid persistence that I found on a Mosquito Squad FAQ:
“How can the barrier spray continue to kill mosquitoes for 21 days? Mosquitoes will feed on plant juices. When they attempt to feed on sprayed leaves, the residual from the spray will kill them.“
Mosquitoes don’t eat leaves, of course, but the quote is correct about the fate of insects that walk on treated leaves. Pesticide franchises like to claim that once their product is dry it is no longer toxic, but that claim makes no logical sense in light of their claim that the product provides protection for three weeks. Some pyrethroids can even last for 90 days if they are on shaded surfaces. One possible reason (in my view) that pyrethroids retain their ability to kill is that morning dew and guttation (see photographs) might re-suspend the pyrethroids on plant surfaces, and then insects walk through or drink these droplets (see photographs).
Signage and notification requirements
All of the above information is of course useful to those interested in getting their yard fogged, but it’s also important for neighbors of treated properties. The reason for this is because the aerosolized pesticide always drifts onto neighboring properties a bit (sometimes a lot). So if a neighbor has a patch of milkweed or a vegetable garden right along the property line, pyrethroids will kill monarchs and coat the vegetables. Homeowners should always check with neighbors before hiring a spraying service and should always personally inform neighbors when the spraying will actually take place.
There doesn’t seem to be a Federal law requiring either signage or neighbor notification when a yard is sprayed with insecticide, and state laws are variable (here’s a good review; here’s another). Many states have laws that require applicators to leave signs at properties that have been sprayed, and some require notification of neighbors prior to spraying. For example, most counties in New York require that neighbors be notified 48 hours before spraying (details). In some states (e.g., Maine) you can get your name on a notification registry that requires any applicator to contact you in advance of spraying. That’s also an option for beekeepers in some states, too; in that case the pesticide applicators need to search a database of hives in a town, then notify hive owners when spraying will happen.
I live in Pennsylvania, one of several states that allows people to be placed on a Pesticide Hypersensitivity Registry. Once on it, pesticide applicators will know you have a medical issue with pesticides and they are obliged to inform you of future spraying (so you can leave the area). Also on this registry are beekeepers, apparently.
All towns and cities should maintain a web page that provides mosquito information and relevant pesticide laws to residents (I designed a template if your town needs one). In addition to maintaining the page, local governments should push prevention by sending to residents timely, regular reminders — with visuals — about how to prevent mosquitoes from breeding. Such tips might be especially important for towns that strive to be pollinator-friendly (e.g., Bee City USA, Pollinator Friendly Alliance, Mayors’ Monarch Pledge). Towns can also enact ordinances on third-party pesticide applications. For example, a town might require that franchises alert neighbors 48 hours before spraying is done. Or, at the very least, towns can remind residents that neighbors can (usually) ask franchises to provide alerts before the next spraying so that cats are inside. Finally, local governments should consider banning automatic pesticide foggers (pipes that deliver pyrethroids on a timer, just like those automatic misters in the grocery aisle).
State governments can can also make sure that pesticide franchises are not making false claims. E.g., if companies claim through words or imagery that their pyrethroid-containing sprays are “environmentally friendly,” “bee friendly,” “kid friendly,” “pet friendly,” or government approved (e.g., “EPA-approved”), sue them. Massachusetts did, and now has several restrictions on advertising including a ban on ads that “rely on images of young children to convey a sense of harmlessness“. Almost all sites I’ve looked at have misleading wording, especially the claim that pyrethroid-containing sprays “target” mosquitoes and ticks (completely false; they do no such thing). Some sites also use misleading graphics and logos (like the one on the right, from a Mosquito Squad site in Florida) to suggest that the EPA has approved the products on a page. I could be wrong, but I’m fairly sure that the EPA neither approves any of these chemicals nor provides that logo. But a typical homeowner might be fooled into thinking otherwise — that’s why state oversight is needed.
Is spraying effective?
Although spraying pyrethroids might be a good way to kill mosquitoes near the ground and in low shrubs, some mosquito species spend most of their time high up in the canopies of trees and are untouched by sprays. For example, many species in the genus Culex (transmitters of West Nile virus, St. Louis encephalitis, eastern equine encephalitis, western encephalitis, avian malaria, etc.) are tree dwellers and only occasionally come down to feed on humans and pets. This limitation isn’t just theoretical: one study showed spraying didn’t reduce numbers of Culex at all. So if you have trees and birds, don’t expect that spraying will be effective. Continued spraying will also result in mosquitoes developing resistance to pyrethroids, something that is happening in Africa already.
But I don’t want to imply that spraying is ineffective. Pyrethroid fogs will probably kill a large percentage of Anopheles spp. (vectors of malaria) and Aedes spp. (vectors of dengue, yellow fever, Zika, etc.) because these species are more likely to be lower in the vegetation. There are more genera of mosquitoes, of course, so depending on where you live and what is growing in your yard, pyrethroids might vary in effectiveness. I think most companies suggest that their sprays might miss 10% of the mosquitoes on a property (that leaves quite a few mosquitoes).
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 Aedesaegypti), not just larvae. Klowden and Bulla 1984 demonstrated it, for example. And yes, Aedes aegyptidrinks 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.
FYI, white-footed woods mosquito (Psorophora ferox) doesn’t transmit Zika, but illustrates to the unbelieving that mosquitoes do drink nectar.