Mosquitoes Learn To Avoid People Who Whack At Them

Image: JJ Harrison/Wikipedia Commons

According to new research, the easiest way to discourage mosquitoes from biting you is also the simplest: swat ’em.

In a paper published in the journal Current Biology, researchers studied mosquitoes’ tendency toward what’s called “aversive conditioning,” and discovered that a turbulent experience — like narrowly missing being squished by a slap — discourages a mosquito from returning to a particular scent. And if that scent happens to be coming from your body, clothes, and breath, well, lucky you.

“The entire mosquito has evolved to identify us and to bite us. They are especially sensitive to temperature, to the water vapor from our sweat, to our body odor, and to the carbon dioxide from our breath, so their entire sensory systems are geared towards locating us,” Jeffery Riffell, lead author of the paper, told Popular Science


Image courtesy of JBER

But a look at mosquito behavior under various conditions found that individual mosquitos remember which potential feeding grounds fought back, and they tend not to return, even though humans are by far their favorite meal.

When a mosquito felt the vibrations of a slap after landing on a human, it was discouraged from returning to that human for at least a day, though it was happy to feed on cattle or dogs instead. While they’re adaptable, the annoying bugs still prefer people, and mosquitos that were forced to feed on other mammals still eventually gravitated back to humans when given the chance.

The experiment also demonstrated that mosquitos have favorite smells, and the people who emit them are likely to be bitten more often than those who don’t. The good news is that when the people who smelled great to mosquitos slapped at them, it had an even stronger negative effect on the mosquito’s propensity to return.

It’s important to mention, in case you were wondering, that researchers didn’t subject actual human subjects to all this biting. The scientists used thin nylon socks that had been worn by students, in order to impart their scent, as a stand-in for actual, itch-prone people.

Scientists are working to determine which precise compound in a human scent draws in mosquitos; if they can find it, they theorize, they can find a way to make it unappealing to the bloodsuckers.

But in the meantime, the best we can do is just keep on swatting.

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