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Bloodletting worsens during Alaska's legendary mosquito infestation

Alex DeMarban
Alaska's blood-hungry hordes are nastier than they've been in years, and they show no signs of letting up. In fact, the swarming predators seem to be growing in number. Here's what to do about it. Aaron Jansen illustration

Parents, guard your children. Alaska's blood-hungry mosquito hordes are nastier than they've been in years, and they show no signs of letting up. In fact, the swarming predators seem to be growing in number, now that the lumbering "snow skeeter" has moved aside, replaced by its deadlier cousins.

The insect uprising -- courtesy of a swampy spring and late-season snow -- has prompted many Alaskans to wonder when relief will come. Not soon enough, according to some of the state's top bug watchers.

So what can we do to stop them? Not much. We may as well celebrate the legendary outbreak. In that vein, the Alaska Dispatch asked bug experts to fill us in on a few facts. Turns out there's a lot we didn't know, including how long it would take a cloud of mosquitoes to suck a man dead.

That knowledge comes courtesy of a gutsy scientist named Richard Gorham, who in 1975 rolled up a sleeve and bared a forearm during a summer day on the Arctic tundra. The whining critters peppered him 435 times in five minutes.

Given that each mosquito can imbibe about one-fifth of a drop of blood -- Gorham calculated that about 500,000 mosquitoes could kill a naked and defenseless man in three hours by removing 25 percent of his blood.

Here's a few other facts we learned from those in the know:

  • It's better to ignore an itch than scratch it.
  • Bug zappers aren't your friend.
  • You can build up a tolerance to mosquitoes.

With a nod to the assumption that mosquitoes are worse in Fairbanks, we turned to Derek Sikes, who manages the insect collection at the University of Alaska's Museum of the North in the Golden Heart City. He's in charge of some 250,000 specimens, a relatively small number for a repository -- but a collection that grows every year.

His job involves doing everything from librarian-like work -- loaning out specimens to researchers around the world -- to gathering new species in the field and creating a DNA barcode library for about 2,000 species.

Will the mosquitoes get worse?

No one can predict mosquito populations. No one is keeping track of them in Alaska, so we don't have a number from year to year or month to month. It's all anecdotal.

Do they become more bloodthirsty or efficient as the season wears on?

It's hard to know, because we have over 40 species in Alaska that rely on different habitats. The large mosquitoes are called the snow mosquitoes, and there are six species of those. They're much slower, and some people call them "training mosquitoes" to get us ready for the next wave. Those are mostly gone. The ones we are seeing now are mostly in the genus ochlerotatus. They're smaller and faster.  

Anything else Alaskans should know?

I have heard that bug zappers with ultraviolet light aren't useful, for one because we don't have enough darkness usually. But even where it is dark enough, most things killed aren't mosquitoes. There are beneficial insects, so most of the zapping people here (are) killing the good guys, like dragonflies (that eat mosquitoes) or a pollinator (like bees).  

There's no mosquito expert in Alaska, according to Sikes, so the Dispatch sought an Outside voice for some context. We found Steve Schutz, the scientific program manager at a county agency that controls mosquitoes in the San Francisco area.

Schutz claims to have built up a resistance to the swelling bite of the mosquito, but he warns it didn't come easily. About a dozen years ago, he began offering his arm as food for the in-house mosquito colony maintained as a control group by his agency.

"It was easier to stick my arm in a cage once a week" than to maintain sacrificial hamsters, he said.

About 35 people work at the agency -- called the Contra Costa Mosquito and Vector Control District. Some remove wasp nests and some deal with rats, but most are focused on protecting neighborhoods from mosquitoes and testing new pesticides.

Schutz, who gets about 100 bites a week, said his skin flares up less than it once did. It helps not to itch, he said.

"I do still get red marks and they itch for a little while, but it subsides very quickly," he said. "You can see red dots the next day but two days later they are barely visible. I think I've done it so long I built up a pretty high antibody level to the proteins in their saliva that cause the allergic reaction in the first place."

Do you scratch the bites?

No. That only makes the tingling worse as you spread the itch-inducing mosquito saliva around. So it's advisable not to scratch if you can avoid doing that. For that purpose, there are hydrocortisones you can use."  

Does eating garlic keep mosquitoes away?

There are a lot of anecdotal stores about how garlic repels mosquitoes, but there is no scientific evidence that it works. People may think that because it repels vampires, it must repel mosquitoes. But it seems more likely to repel people than mosquitoes.

What about eating sugar: Are they attracted to sweet blood?

They're honing in on people based on carbon dioxide emissions in our breath and some components in our skin secretions, like sweat and that sort of thing. Who they go after seems to vary from one mosquito species to another, and from one person to another. When one person says they get bit all the time, and some one else says they don't get bitten, there is some truth to that. It has something to do with body chemistry, but it's a complex phenomenon and hard to pin down what is responsible for that.

Back in Alaska, a longtime bug observer is Janice Chumley, integrated pest management technician at the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Cooperative Extension Service on the Kenai Peninsula.

Are there any home remedies to use to avoid chemicals like DEET?

I tend to tell people not to use home remedies because you don't know what the reactions will be. Sometimes they can do more damage than good. For instance, what if you put something in a water system and it killed all the frogs in the area? I let people know that while all of us don't like to use chemicals, there is a lot of research that went into that product. ... When a chemical hits the shelf, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on testing, and if something goes awry, doctors have an idea how to treat it. The fact is we're all plagued with mosquitoes this year. It's from Fairbanks all the way down, and we've been getting lots of calls about it. It's just a high bug year, and ... we will have to be miserable for a while.

Can you tell me about the calls?

Yes a number of people are saying, “Why are there so many bugs. There must be something wrong. I've lived here the last 100 years and I've never seen this many bugs.”

But as people, we tend to forget our misery until it returns. Thinking back, the last couple years were not that bad, but 2004 and 1998, those were horrible mosquito years.

When will relief come?

It won't be for at least a couple of weeks, so dress accordingly and slap at will. I recommend wearing bug jackets with head netting. It will at least help you stay a little bit sane.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com