Mosquito Research

Steve Peper, post-doctoral research associate in the Texas Tech Department of Environmental Toxicology, explains how he contains mosquitoes for research on June 14, 2019 in the department's labs located at the Reese Technology Center.

For most people, mosquitoes are annoyances that may not seem dangerous to the naked eye.

Although, as summer continues, people may need to consider methods to protect themselves from these pests.

With the possibility of local mosquito species carrying viruses, educating oneself and working to limit mosquitoes in the area are ways a person may keep themselves healthy.

Ronald Warner, epidemiologist and professor emeritus at the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center, said some mosquito species in West Texas can carry West Nile virus.

“Some mosquitoes are adapted to some viruses, and some are not,” he said. “The Aedes mosquitoes and the Culex mosquitoes seem to be the primary ones that transmit disease to humans and animals. Although, they’re not the only ones.”

Female mosquitoes taking a blood meal from other organisms is an issue Warner said results in these insects laying thousands of eggs. Due to male mosquitoes needing to feed on plant juices, he said certain species will live in specific ecosystems that can provide males with their necessary food source.

Depending on the species, Warner said mosquitoes will feed on specific mammals or birds while others may feed on any organism that can provide a warm blood meal.

“That will determine where that disease will show up,” he said regarding the type of ecosystem and the organisms a mosquito species will target. “But if we want to just talk about West Nile, even though there are several different mosquitoes that can inhabit the high plains of West Texas, Culex tarsalis is by far the most efficient in transmitting West Nile.”

Around late May to early June, Warner said C. tarsalis will start feeding on birds, especially nestlings. Around late July to early August, he said the mosquitoes will mainly feed on humans and equines.

“West Nile has this cycle in birds and mosquitoes,” Warner said. “So, if we have a mosquito that transfers its eating habits from birds to mammals, then it certainly is going to transmit that virus. Horses and humans are very susceptible to West Nile.”

Even though there are other viruses, such as Eastern and Western Equine Encephalitis, Dengue and Saint Louis encephalitis, that certain mosquito species can transmit, Warner said West Nile virus is the most significant in West Texas.

With the presence of West Nile virus in West Texas, one may wonder how to spot symptoms of the illness.

Steve Peper, post-doctoral senior research associate in the Tech Department of Environmental Toxicology, said West Nile fever and West Nile neuroinvasive disease are ways the virus can present itself.

Regarding people infected with West Nile virus, Peper said about 80 percent of them will not have symptoms, about 20 percent will develop West Nile fever and have flu-like symptoms and about 1 percent will develop the fatal West Nile neuroinvasive disease, which can have long-lasting neurological effects.

“A healthy individual would think it’s a cold or the flu,” he said regarding someone developing West Nile fever. “Its more dangerous in the young and the old; those that are immunocompromised.”

Regardless of the symptoms one infected with West Nile virus may develop, a person may consider how to deal with the local mosquito population to prevent the virus from spreading.

To eliminate mosquitoes near one’s house, a person may want to know where mosquitoes thrive.

Corey Brelsfoard, assistant professor in the Tech Department of Biological Sciences, said rainfall and standing water are factors that prompt the presence and increase of mosquito populations.

“They need water for their life cycle,” he said. “The eggs have to hatch in the water, the larvae will live one to two weeks, if not a little bit longer in the water, the pupae for a couple of days, and they will emerge as an adult.”

Depending on the species, Brelsfoard said mosquitoes will require a certain amount of water. He said people should remove standing water around their homes to prevent mosquitoes from being present.

“It’s the public’s job too to kind of help out with this issue,” Brelsfoard said. “Just be aware of the issue.”

For a Lubbock citizen, there are a variety of methods one could utilize to alleviate the mosquito issue during the summer.

Katherine Wells, director of Public Health for the City of Lubbock, said the four D’s are methods that people can use to protect themselves from mosquitoes. She said the four D’s consist of draining standing water, dressing in clothes that cover more skin, using mosquito repellents with DEET and staying indoors during dusk and dawn hours.

“Those mosquitoes tend to bite at the dusk and dawn hours,” Wells said regarding mosquitoes that spread West Nile virus. “Wear repellent if you’re going to be outside during those times.”

In addition to individuals taking precautions to hinder the mosquito population, Wells said the City of Lubbock Vector Control have specific techniques to eliminate mosquitoes in neighborhoods. She said these techniques consist of disease surveillance, which involves trapping and studying mosquitoes, larvae sight treatment, which involves putting bacteria in water to prevent larvae from developing, and spraying pesticides.

“They’re scientifically proven methods that we use,” Wells said. “We don’t have any disease circulating right now that we know of, but it’s one of those wetter seasons, so I anticipate that we will have West Nile cases this year.”

With the effect of mosquitoes on the community, spraying neighborhoods and draining water may not be the only ways people are working to eliminate mosquitoes.

Through research on mosquitoes, Peper said he and his team are working to understand mosquitoes’ resistance against pesticides.

“One of the main tools that vector control departments would use is pesticides,” he said. “A growing concern lately has been mosquito populations developing a resistance, so you will spray the insecticide, and it doesn’t kill them.”

In response to this resistance, Peper said different agencies across Texas are sending his team mosquito eggs that will be reared into adults, sprayed with pesticides and analyzed to see if they die in the expected amount of time.

“That information can be used by these different vector control agencies to help guide their abatement efforts,” he said. “There are over-the-counter pesticides you can buy to spray in your yard, but that’s not necessarily the best idea.”

Whether it be vector control departments or individuals, Peper said anyone who sprays a lot of insecticides can help mosquitoes build pesticide resistance. He said people should utilize the four D’s to prevent mosquitoes instead of spraying a lot of pesticides.

Regardless of what a person should do to prevent mosquitoes from flying around their homes, educating oneself about the impact of mosquito populations may be the precaution one takes.

“That’s why it’s important that these different agencies work together to try to address these issues,” Peper said. “You have the research institutes, like Tech, you have Vector Control, who works for the City of Lubbock Department of Health. Working together, they can try to identify when these infections are occurring earlier and address it.”

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