Summer Science: Studying Mosquitoes And Corn

As summer fades away, we take a last look at the ups and downs of the season. Farmer Ken MacCaulay provides a closer look at fresh summer corn, and mosquito expert Carl Olson explains why some people get more bites than others.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

It may be the quintessential scene of summer: the back porch dinner - peaches and tomatoes and corn from the farm stand, maybe a pitcher of margaritas, something sizzling on the grill and, of course, mosquitoes, hordes of them having their own summer feast on whatever bit of skin you've left uncovered.

Of course, this is the weekend to say so long to summer, but before it's completely gone, we thought we'd take a scientific look at some of the boons and banes of the season. And we're calling it Summer Out of the Box.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: First up: corn. If you've ever shucked a pile of it for dinner, you know how corn silk gets into just about everything. But what's it good for other than making a big mess? To find out, we called up Ken MacCaulay(ph), a farmer who at this very instant is standing in his cornfield in White Cloud, Kansas. Hello there, Ken.

Mr. KEN MACCAULAY (Farmer): Hi, Jacki. It's good to be here.

LYDEN: What does corn silk do, Ken?

Mr. MACCAULAY: Well, corn silks are just essential to the production of corn because it's actually the pathway that the male pollen takes to get to the kernel, which is in the ear. So, it's the reproductive system of the corn. And, you know, you can call it the fallopian tubes of the corn plant really, because it actually carries the pollen from the tassel down to the ear.

LYDEN: I'll be using that phrase at dinner with my husband tonight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: So, if I have an ear of corn at dinner and it's got some missing kernels, is that because nature didn't work and that particular strand of silk never got pollinated?

Mr. MACCAULAY: That's exactly it. You've got to have that dust off of the tassel up at the top touch that fertile piece of silk. That pollen travels down through that silk to the spot on the ear, and every one of those kernels has a strand of pollen that it has to work. So, they're individually reproductive system for each kernel.

LYDEN: So, if corn is pollinated by wind, does that mean you worry on days that are calm and hot?

Mr. MACCAULAY: Yes, we do. The hot is the biggest issue and moisture. If you have cool nights, that helps you a lot. But if that silk gets too dry during the pollination period, which is usually about seven to ten days, then your pollination won't have as good a chance of happening and that's the end of your - the viability of that ear. You could either have a really good one, big, lots of kernels or, you know, sparse and missing a lot of kernels.

LYDEN: Well, Ken MacCaulay, thanks so much for revealing the mysteries of the silk tassel. And you joined us from your farm. You're standing in the cornfield in northeastern Kansas in White Cloud. Thanks again.

Mr. MACCAULAY: Thank you, Jacki. I really enjoyed it.

LYDEN: Okay. Enough of that summer joy. Now, let's talk about a summer plague: mosquitoes. Are you 'squito candy? Do they dive bomb you and leave your friends alone? For answers, we turn to Carl Olson of the University of Arizona's department of entomology. Although, Mr. Olson, I guess there's not a lot of agreement on why some people are tastier than others.

Mr. CARL OLSON (University of Arizona, Department of Entomology): Well, there's a complex of issues, and it can start with the amount of CO2 you breathe out; it could include your body temperature, could include what's in your sweat -lactic acid and citric acid. Or some of the mosquitoes are ankle biters, which are a plague. It's the bacteria on your feet - certain smelly feet are more attractive to those types of mosquitoes than others.

LYDEN: Bad enough to have stinky feet. Mosquitoes like them?

Mr. OLSON: Some mosquitoes do. In fact, one of my colleagues actually used to use old dirty socks that he put in his traps to bait these mosquitoes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: You mentioned lactic acid and citric acid. Does that mean mosquitoes are more likely to attack if you're running outside or working out outside or playing tennis or something like that?

Mr. OLSON: Well, depending on the fitness and how much you're producing of those acids in your sweat. Each person's physiology seems to dictate different attractions. Generally they think that the more fit a person is, the less likely they're going to attract mosquitoes.

LYDEN: Another reason to be buff. Well, we know that certain mosquito repellants work, but is there anything that we can do to become less of a mosquito magnet, for example, eat a lot of garlic or something like that?

Mr. OLSON: Certainly garlic may help, or eating bananas. But, again, there hasn't been enough research done to say, oh, this person needs to each five gloves of garlic. It's an individual thing.

LYDEN: Carl Olson is the associate curator of the department of entomology at the University of Arizona, and he joined us from the studios of KUAZ in Tucson. Thanks very much. Have a good Labor Day.

Mr. OLSON: Okay. Thank you.

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