Under Certain Conditions, Tow-Haired Folks Will Have Less Fun — and More Itches
By Buck Wolf
Just like gentlemen, mosquitoes sometimes prefer blondes.
Oh, we can pay lip service to Thomas Jefferson's promise that we're all created equal. But, as you gather around the barbecue, face it. Some of us just get more attention. And in that regard, being blond doesn't hurt. Or does it?
Professor Andrew Spielman, co-author of Mosquito (Hyperion) and one of the world's foremost experts on mosquitoes and the diseases they carry, says blonds and redheads might be more attractive to skeeters, for the same reason they tend turn heads at cocktail parties. That is, they stand out in a crowd.
"Mosquitoes are attracted to contrasts," says Spielman. "If you have one blond person with long hair wearing bright colors at a picnic held in the shade, where the other people are dark-haired, you know who is going to get the attention."
But mosquitoes look for more than good hair when choosing a target. A variety of research has shown that ovulating women, people with smelly feet, and those who sweat a lot are also good eatin'.
"Some people are clearly more attractive to mosquitoes. The precise reasons are unknown. But various research has shown that skin temperature, contrasts of color, lactic acid, and other conditions make a difference."
Book Has Good Buzz
Spielman's book, co-written with Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Michael D'Antonio of Newsday, takes a look at how the one of man's smallest yet deadliest foes has shaped our lives, and to some extent, world history. This summer, as you gather 'round to roast weenies and the insects gather 'round you, keep a few things in mind:
The More You Swat, The More You Get Bitten: When you flail your arms to shoo away skeeters, you're probably just attracting them.
The sweat from your effort merely tickles the mosquito's antenna. Your movement catches her eye. The lactic acid from your overworked muscles whets her appetite. The heat of your skin tells her, "It's feeding time."
Humans Often Play a Role in Mosquito Sex: When it comes to biting humans, it's the females who do the dirty work. A pregnant mosquito will sink her pointy proboscis into your hide just before she lays her eggs.
Of course, there are some 2,500 varieties of these mini-vampires. Only a few feast on human blood. Still, a human often comes in handy in egg production. If you are scratching, itching and a little too red, just remember that you're helping someone's mother.
Insect Politics: The mosquito has made its presence felt. Through malaria, yellow fever, and other insect-borne diseases, our little winged foes have claimed the lives of Alexander the Great, Oliver Cromwell and various popes and world leaders. They've held back Roman legions, helped defeat the Spanish Armada, and thwarted Gengis Khan's attempt to conquer the world.
Think of the mosquito as a protector of the weak. When spears and guns won't stop a would-be band of plunderers, mosquito-borne illnesses will often do the trick. "In Africa and Asia, you'll find that explorers contracted malaria and other diseases that the locals were immune to," Spielman says.
Many historians believe Africans were able to rebel on the Amistad slave ship because the crew had been stricken by yellow fever. Not bad for a critter the size of a grape seed.
It wasn't until 1890 that scientists suspected the bug's role in the spread of many diseases. But even today, malaria kills more than 1 million annually, or one person every 12 seconds. And when you consider the international problems cause by West Nile virus and various strains of encephalitis, you realize that not much has changed.
That Sexy Buzz Does that buzzing sound turn you on? It drives male mosquitoes into a swarming frenzy. A female achieves an extremely high "C" note by flapping more than 500 times a minute. Spielman notes that a power station in Canada that made the same note began malfunctioning. Turns out, it was gummed up by tens of thousands of mosquitoes, all males, apparently sexually attracted to the hum of the machinery.
The Swarming Sex Party: When you walk through a swarm of mosquitoes, you're not just at risk of swallowing a bug, you're crashing a sex party.
The female is drawn to the swarming guys. But after this big buildup, the end might sound depressingly familiar to those of us who look to nature for inspiration.
Once a male and female pair off, it's over in seconds. The female usually ends up pregnant, never wanting to have sex again. And the male often flies away with his sex organ chopped off.
Bug Zappers Don't Work: Forget electronic bug zappers, They merely kill moths and draw more mosquitoes to your backyard than they kill. Ultrasonic sound repellents? They're unproven.
Spielman says at his outdoor events, he uses sprays and oils with DEET. "You should be careful when you apply it," he says. "There are a few reports of people who have gotten neurological damage by grossly overexposing themselves. It's rare."
Citronella candles and some other oils also work.
Do Bugs Bug a Bug Expert?: On a summer night, that annoying buzzing can drive Spielman out of bed with the warnings about West Nile disease running through his head. "I know as much as anyone, the chances of getting it are remote," says the 70-year-old. "But I hear the warnings, too."
Back at work at Harvard University, he's happy to stick his hand in a mosquito cage to let the little critters feed. "I'm immune to a few species," he says. "It doesn't really help when I go to the park, unfortunately — it's a different kind of mosquito there."
But not everyone thinks his job is so thrilling. "My granddaughter thinks what I do is gross," he says. "I tell her you can learn a lot from insects. I'm sure she will."