The Sound of Science - "Mosquitos"

May 17, 2019

K: I’m Kate Powers from NIU STEM Outreach here in the studio with Sam Watt and this is the Sound of Science on WNIJ.

S: Kate, I have a question from Ellis today about the upcoming season of mosquitos! Ellis wants to know why some people get more mosquito bites than others. 

NIU STEM Outreach

K: Sam, this is a question that has personally plagued me as I am one of the chosen ones when it comes to mosquitos - they find me irresistible.

S: Yeah, haven’t I seen you carrying mosquito repellent in your purse?

K: I sure do. And I’ve looked into why I might be more attractive to mosquitoes than other people. It turns out that I have a lot of compatriots. About 20% of people are more attractive to mosquitos than the other 80%.

S: Now I know that some people don’t get the itchy welts when they get bitten. So they don’t know that they’ve been bitten.

K: Oh those lucky folks! But this 20% is about scientific testing. Scientists watch their poor victims - I mean volunteers - stick their arms in cages and watch the mosquitos bite them.

S: Wow, who the heck are they getting to volunteer for that study?!

K: Certainly not me. But they’re learning that it’s really complicated to determine what attracts mosquitos. Humans have about 400 different chemical compounds on their skin and scientists are testing each one. They do know that carbon dioxide is a huge attraction. So if you are exercising and breathing heavily you will attract more mosquitos. Pregnant women produce more CO2, making them choice targets. Some of the other possible lures are high levels of steroids on the skin and excess amounts of uric and lactic acids, among others.

S: Is there anything we can do to become less attractive to those blood suckers?

K: Well, scientists say that 85% of our susceptibility is down to our genes. But we have various mosquito repellents on the market. DEET is of the most common and effective one and has been proven to be perfectly safe over decades of testing. 

S: I heard that you shouldn’t put DEET on kids - that you should use something more natural to protect them.

K: Well, actually, the American Academy of Pediatrics states that you can use low concentrations of DEET - 10% or less - on children older than two months. And research shows that those essential oil “life hacks” don’t do a darn thing to repel mosquitos.

S: Well, DEET it is then! Thanks for getting us prepped for Mosquito Season Kate! Keep those questions coming to stemoutreach@niu.edu. This has been the Sound of Science on WNIJ

K: Where you learn something new every day.