Mosquito Attraction

(This column was first published in the August 16, 1999 Buffalo News.)

    The tone of her e-mail message to entomologists was touching. (I don’t identify the woman here as she deserves no further embarrassment.) She wrote about her terrible problems with insects. The communication conveyed her love for the out-of-doors, but it also told of her fear of venturing into the woods or even into her own backyard. It seemed that anywhere she went outside every mosquito and fly and hornet in the vicinity sought her out. She could be with a dozen other people, none of whom were seriously disturbed, while she had to windmill her arms and shake her head constantly in an only partly successful attempt to fend off the noxious pests.

    Not only was she bothered by what seemed to her to be every species of the Class Insecta except perhaps butterflies, but her companions made her feel still worse. None of them believed that she had more trouble with bad bugs than they did and they constantly offered what was to her completely useless -- and usually self-serving -- advice like, "Just get used to them. Notice how I pay them no attention and they stop bothering me." When she attempted to follow this kind of suggestion, she ended up with welts up and down her arms and legs and a face so puffed up she could hardly recognize herself.

    "Why me?" she asked.

    Various answers were offered by the insect specialists. Insecticides were recommended (she had tried them all and they had offered little help) as was mosquito netting. Netting was probably the best advice but it is not comfortable going out on hot summer days wearing long sleeves, pants tucked into sox, a hat and a head net.

    I was drawn to this woman’s story, because my own experience, although not nearly so bad, supports hers. As a youngster I was terribly bothered by bugs and had to put up with similar advice as well as kidding by my less-than-understanding friends. But then I had major stomach surgery. It caused quite striking changes in my body’s systems. For a time I stopped sweating; sweet things like syrup tasted bitter. And my insect problem disappeared.

    While I do not recommend a sub-total gastrectomy as a solution to this woman’s troubles, I offer my experience as evidence that her problem was real and not the result of some kind of phobia. Over time most of the effects of my operation have worn off. Once again syrup is sweet and I sweat. The bugs are back too, but not nearly as bad as they were before.

    John VanDyk of Iowa State University has summarized studies of what attracts mosquitoes to people.* Here is what he found:

    Indeed a few people are much more attractive than others, but three times as many are especially unattractive. (Those are, of course, the friends who are so generous with advice.) Generally men attract more than women, adults than babies. Sweat, together with heat and humidity, draws in the bugs. Light is a deterrent, a factor well known to campers who race to set up tents before the little bloodsuckers attack at twilight.

    Clothing color has an effect as well. The colors are ordered: black, red and blue (all very attractive); gray, green and tan (neutral); yellow and white (least attractive). Which raises an interesting question: If you wear unattractive clothing, will a disproportionate number of mosquitoes land on your exposed head and arms? The research answer is no.

    These factors are pleasant to contemplate this year when mosquito numbers seem especially low. Your guess is as good as mine why that is.-- Gerry Rising

* Mr. VanDyk's summary of mosquito attraction studies may be found at his Iowa State University website.