A Visit to Florida's Mosquito Man

George O'Meara is the world's foremost expert on mosquitoes. From his laboratory in Vero Beach, Fla., he studies the life of mosquitoes and dispenses fun facts (Such as? Only female mosquitoes bite). Eric Weiner douses himself with repellant and visits the good doctor in his lab.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

California authorities today report another new death from West Nile virus, which is carried by mosquitoes; the fifth fatality in the state from West Nile this year, another reminder that no matter what humankind tries to eradicate mosquitoes, nothing seems to work. NPR's Eric Weiner ventured into central Florida mosquito country with a researcher you might call Dr. Mosquito.

ERIC WEINER reporting:

Dr. Mosquito's real name is George O'Meara, a slightly rotund man with a pink complexion and a thick Boston accent; clearly not from these parts. But if you're going to study mosquitoes, Florida is the place to be. O'Meara works at the Florida Medical Entomology Lab. It's a climate-controlled environment--controlled, that is, for the comfort of the mosquitoes.

It's a bit humid in here.

Dr. GEORGE O'MEARA (Florida Medical Entomology Lab): Oh, yes. It's about a hundred percent. Mosquitoes do well under high-humid conditions.

WEINER: The mosquitoes in this lab seem to be doing quite well, thank you very much, but it's not where O'Meara likes to spend his time.

Dr. O'MEARA: I think there's too much lab work being done. People need to get outdoors, and that's where the mosquitoes are and that's how you can learn best what they're doing.

WEINER: And so we headed outdoors into a Florida afternoon very much like O'Meara's lab, hot and incredibly humid.

(Soundbite of brush being pushed aside)

WEINER: We hiked through thick mangroves, normally ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes. But this is one of O'Meara's projects, and he was keen to show off how he's managed to control the mosquito population here. O'Meara has been studying mosquitoes for the past 40 years, and he never tires of them. There are, after all, some 3,000 species. One of his favorites is the Asian tiger mosquito, a feisty bug with a stripe running down its back. It's aggressive but not the most aggressive. That dubious honor, says O'Meara, goes to the brown marsh mosquito.

Dr. O'MEARA: Some of these mosquitoes, they kind of buzz around you and then they finally end up landing on you and taking a blood meal. This mosquito comes in like a dart. When you see it's there, it's half full of blood already.

WEINER: O'Meara remembers when years ago some colleagues dispatched him to a swamp to collect just a few brown marsh mosquitoes. It was a setup; there's no such thing as just a few brown marsh mosquitoes.

Dr. O'MEARA: Oh, I could hardly see. You could hardly breathe. You couldn't even open your mouth because if you took a big gulp of air in, you'd swallow a hundred of them at once and--of course, but you never can let them know that they got to you, you know. You come back, you say, `Man, that was wonderful. When can I do this again?'

(Soundbite of laughter)

WEINER: It's sort of the mosquito machismo?

Dr. O'MEARA: Right, yeah. You gotta never let them know they got to you. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WEINER: Mosquitos don't actually bite, explains O'Meara. They pierce the skin and then suck our blood using an appendage that acts exactly like a syringe. And for their tiny size, they devour a huge amount of blood.

Dr. O'MEARA: Typically, a mosquito will take its own weight in blood. So if it weighs a couple of milligrams, it'll take a couple of milligrams of blood. So now it weighs 4 milligrams.

WEINER: That would be like me eating about 200 pounds' worth of food.

Dr. O'MEARA: That's right, in one--in two minutes. Yeah.

WEINER: It seems that mosquitoes are attracted to some people more than others. They seem to love me more than other people. Why is that?

Dr. O'MEARA: There is a variation in people. I think it might be, you know, the different amount of lactic acid and other volatiles that come off their body. A lot of times...

WEINER: Whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait, wait. What are you suggesting, that I have more lactic acid and volatiles coming off my body?

Dr. O'MEARA: Well, at least the kinds that mosquitoes like. I don't know what they might be.

WEINER: Do they die after they bite you or sting you?

Dr. O'MEARA: No. No. No, they--not unless you hit them hard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WEINER: Which O'Meara doesn't do very often. He won't kill a mosquito, or any other bug for that matter, much to the annoyance of his wife. But he regularly regales his family, or anyone who will listen, with fun mosquito facts. For instance, did you know that the average mosquito lives for only about five weeks, or that many species detect their prey--that's us--by sniffing the carbon dioxide we emit when we breathe or that it is only the female mosquito that sucks blood?

Dr. O'MEARA: That's a male. You can tell a male and a female mosquito apart. I mean, one has kind of a--some species--many species...

WEINER: Remember, we're a family show, but go ahead.

Dr. O'MEARA: No, no, it has a bushy antenna.

WEINER: Oh!

Dr. O'MEARA: Yeah, yeah. Oh, yeah.

WEINER: And in case you're wondering about mosquito sex? Not so exciting. It only lasts about two seconds. Blink, says O'Meara, and you miss it.

But what everyone really wants to know about mosquitoes is: How do you keep them off of you? Unfortunately, O'Meara has no magic solution. Wear loose-fitting, light-colored clothing, he advises, and try not to move around too much; many mosquitoes can detect motion. Oh, and stay the heck out of Florida in the summer, especially one part in particular.

Dr. O'MEARA: The Everglades National Park particularly in the mangrove swamp area down near Flamingo can, at times, be quite, you know--with landing rates in excess of a thousand per minute.

WEINER: Landing rates?

Dr. O'MEARA: That a thousand mosquitoes per minute would be landing on you, and after a while they'd be waiting in line to land on you.

WEINER: Sort of like stacked up over La Guardia.

Dr. O'MEARA: There would be no gates left.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WEINER: O'Meara is quick to defend the misunderstood mosquito, which is, after all, part of the food chain. Geckos, for instance, love to eat mosquitoes. But he concedes that our ecosystem would survive just fine without the mosquito, though, of course, George O'Meara would be out of a job. Eric Weiner, NPR News, Miami.

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