Fight the bite: Which mosquito gadgets work?

HOUSTON - For anyone outside at dawn or dusk, mosquitoes and the topic of West Nile virus are always close to the mind. With the 2012 West Nile virus season as bad as it has been, the magic word is "protection." But what works best?

KPRC Local 2 took a variety of products to Texas A&M mosquito expert Dr. Michel Slotman to get his take.

Starting with the back yard fogger, Slotman said it does offer some temporary relief.

"The fogger basically targets mosquitoes that are actively flying around at the time that you apply the fogger," said Slotman. "So it's going to kill active mosquitoes, which is only a small portion of the mosquitoes in your back yard."

You can try to stop mosquitoes with style, using gadgets like one that heats an insecticide coil encased in ceramic or turning on the heating element of a special lantern. Both gadgets heat an insecticide that has repellent qualities.

Reviewing these items, Slotman said, "If you're in a wind-still area where these chemicals surround you in the air, they're going to have some repellent effect on mosquitoes."

The key phrase is "wind-still." A breezy day will make products like the personal fan less effective.

"People should not assume that creates a shield around them that prevents all mosquitoes from biting," said Slotman.

In one of the mosquito labs at Texas A&M, Slotman's team is studying why some mosquitoes are more attracted to humans, and it comes down to smell. That prompted one company to create a product that promises to lead mosquitoes straight to your bug zapper. Slotman said he is skeptical about its effectiveness.

"You just don't kill enough mosquitoes with a zapper to make an impact. You kill mostly beneficial insects," he said.

What about the old wives tale about using dryer sheets to repel mosquitoes? That was a first for Slotman.

"We do know that people that haven't showered in a while are more attractive to mosquitoes than people who are freshly washed because you have less odors that you emit to your environment," he said. "So, if it cleans you up a bit, perhaps."

Mosquitoes are attracted to chemicals in breath or sweat, which are hard to hide completely. To protect his own family, Slotman swears by the repellent chemical DEET, which has been in use for more than 50 years.

"It's one of the most effective repellents that we have," said Slotman.

Ideally, he uses DEET in concert with other products, like the table-top gadgets and wearing clothes treated with insecticide for the most protection.

The mosquito-fight has also gone high-tech. There are smartphone apps people can buy that promise to keep mosquitoes away with sound waves. Slotman said he has found no evidence that they work. His advice: Don't waste your money.

Overall, Slotman said most of the products KPRC Local 2 tested can probably help a little. But using just one by itself can give people a false sense of security.

There's also the danger of mosquitoes developing a tolerance to insecticides. Not so much from small doses like the table-top gadgets, but rather the widespread uncontrolled use of insecticides.

"If we have mosquito population that's become resistant, then we lose valuable tools in our arsenal to fight mosquitoes," Slotman said.

Avoid growing mosquitoes in your backyard

To mosquitoes, humans are walking, talking, billboards for an all-you-can-eat buffet.

A visit to a mosquito research lab at Texas A&M University's entomology department provided some advice on how to keep things safe around the house during the West Nile Virus season.

Texas A&M associate professor Dr. Michel Slotman, Ph.D., told Local 2 the winged-pests are attracted to the bacteria in people's sweat and the carbon dioxide traveling in every breath.

"A lot of the mosquitoes people are bitten by are actually breeding in their yard or the yard of their neighbors," said Slotman, who researches mosquitoes at the university.

Slotman said it can take less than a week for a new batch of mosquitoes to launch from a breeding site.

"The mosquitoes that we worry about in particular will feed and breed in any standing water around the house. Mosquito larvae have been found breeding in containers as small as a bottle cap," Slotman said.

Since mosquitoes don't move far from their breeding site, Slotman said people should clear clogged gutters, empty flower pots with pools of water, and dump garbage can lids with pools of water. Even something as small as an empty soda can can be prime spots for breeding.

"If it can not be emptied it should be treated with Bti, Bacillus thuringiensis israelenis, which is a mosquito larvae insecticide," Slotman said.

Another tip -- keep the grass cut and bushes trimmed. Slotman said mosquitoes use these areas to rest before another feeding. Spray insecticides don't often reach them in these hidden spots.

But Slotman cautions people to not rush out to coat the yard in insecticides and those using misting systems should be careful.

"Whenever people over-apply insecticides, we worry about the risk of the mosquito populations developing a resistance. We have a limited number of insecticides that work and we want to make sure they keep working," Slotman said.

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