Why Mosquitoes May Bite You More Than Your Friends : Short Wave Asked and answered: why some of you might be more prone to being bitten by mosquitoes* than others. Turns out, some interesting factors could make you more appetizing. Plus, in true micro wave fashion, we go over some of your delightful listener mail.

*In general, much more research needs to be done to understand all the nuances of what makes us so appealing to some mosquitoes.

Email us your scientific questions, praise, comments and concerns at shortwave@npr.org. It just might end up in an episode!
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Micro Wave: Why Mosquitoes Bite You More Than Your Friends

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Micro Wave: Why Mosquitoes Bite You More Than Your Friends

Micro Wave: Why Mosquitoes Bite You More Than Your Friends

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  • Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF MICROWAVE DOOR CLOSING, BEEPING, WHIRRING)

MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:

Hey, everybody. Maddie Sofia here with a very special guest - the one, the only...

REBECCA RAMIREZ, BYLINE: OK (laughter).

SOFIA: ...The producer of your hearts - you've heard her name in the credits.

RAMIREZ: OK, stop. Just stop.

SOFIA: She's produced some of your favorite episodes out there - for example, the entire Animal Slander series.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAVEL SOUNDING)

SOFIA: But today she is here on the other side of the microphone - Rebecca Ramirez.

RAMIREZ: Hey-o (ph).

SOFIA: Together we're bringing you our latest Micro Wave, episodes with a few little science brain snacks and...

RAMIREZ: A little listener mail appreciation...

SOFIA: All right. Rebecca, you have been selected to report today's episode because it is all about the unofficial state bird of your home state Florida - the mosquito.

RAMIREZ: Honestly, Florida never gets any respect. But...

(LAUGHTER)

RAMIREZ: ...I mean, it's kind of true. We had a lot of people write into us this summer with one very simple question, like Emily (ph) from D.C.

EMILY: My question is, why do some mosquitoes bite some people more than others? Obviously, I'm asking from very personal experience. People ask me all the time if I have chicken pox because my legs are covered in mosquito bites. And trust me; I've tried everything.

SOFIA: So today on the show, we talk to an expert about why mosquitoes like some people more than others and ways to make yourself less delicious. I'm Maddie Sofia, and this is SHORT WAVE from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOFIA: OK, Ramirez - we are talking about why mosquitoes are attracted to some people more than others. So who' you talk to?

RAMIREZ: Obviously, I called up a fellow Floridian, as you do when talking about mosquitoes.

EVA BUCKNER: So my name is Eva Buckner. I am an assistant professor at the University of Florida's IFAS Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory.

SOFIA: Yes, a medical entomologist finally - so cool.

RAMIREZ: Totally. Medical entomologists are people who study insects in the context of medicine.

BUCKNER: The reason I study mosquitoes is because of the way that they're able to affect public health. So they are the world's deadliest animal.

SOFIA: Oh, yeah. They kind of are.

RAMIREZ: And one thing to keep in mind for this episode is that there are many different types of mosquitoes that bite us but not a ton of conclusive research on their different biting motivations.

SOFIA: Got it - Caveat noted and honestly appreciated.

RAMIREZ: You're welcome.

So before we get into what little we know about why some species of mosquitoes bite people, fun fact - it turns out female mosquitoes are the only ones that bite you.

SOFIA: Oh, right.

RAMIREZ: And mostly, they use the blood to make eggs. The males - a little less hardcore - just live off of nectar and other sugar sources, which I mean, you know, technically the females also do. But...

SOFIA: Ooh, I didn't know that. I knew about the female thing. I didn't know about the nectar thing. OK. Cool. Cool, cool, cool. All right. But what did she say, Rebecca, about why they're attracted to some people more than others? Give Emily what she wants.

RAMIREZ: (Laughter) Well, OK. One thing that makes a difference is the types of bacteria on your skin.

BUCKNER: If you have a very diverse amount of bacteria on your skin, it seems that they are going to be less attracted to that.

RAMIREZ: You know, compared to people who have a less diverse population of bacteria on their skin. And specifically, Laura Harrington, another medical entomologist over at Cornell, told me that there are around 300 chemical compounds on the human skin, many of which could be attractive to mosquitoes, which is kind of a lot, I think. But it's really about how they act in concert with one another that makes a person attractive or unattractive to mosquitoes.

SOFIA: Got it. OK. What about things that are easier to control?

RAMIREZ: I mean, so - weirdly, the color of your clothing could make a difference.

SOFIA: Hmm.

RAMIREZ: Yeah. And this has to do with how mosquitoes detect you. So Eva pointed out that...

BUCKNER: Their vision may not be as crisp as ours, but they can certainly detect a darker object better than they can detect a lighter-colored object.

RAMIREZ: Which makes them more likely to land on you if you're wearing darker clothing...

SOFIA: Got it. Got it. So you're better off wearing lighter colors because mosquitoes are better at detecting darker objects.

RAMIREZ: Exactly. And it's not just about what they can see, either. Mosquitoes can also sense heat, and darker colors absorb more heat. So you know, that could be at play here, too.

SOFIA: So no more dark clothing.

RAMIREZ: Totally out...

SOFIA: (Laughter).

RAMIREZ: ...At least as a precaution. Laura said that more research is needed to know if that attraction to darker colors necessarily translates to more bites because, again, I mean, you have to consider all the bacteria, too.

SOFIA: Rebecca, I literally always consider the bacteria.

RAMIREZ: (Laughter) OK. Well, one thing that's for sure is that mosquitoes are really good at detecting carbon dioxide - you know, CO2, which we're releasing all the time when we exhale. And there are a few things that increase the amount of CO2 you're putting out. A big one is exercise.

SOFIA: Ooh, that makes sense. You're, like, huffing and puffing oxygen in, CO2 out. Metabolism, here we go.

RAMIREZ: Exactly, exactly. Plus, you're hot. You're sweating, which mosquitoes are also very into, by the way.

SOFIA: No, I'm in trouble.

RAMIREZ: They like the little chemicals in your little sweat like lactic acid, which you always have. But it's especially prevalent when you're exercising.

SOFIA: OK. So all this being said, can't our dear listener Emily just, like, use bug spray?

RAMIREZ: I mean, yeah. So Eva and Laura both said you can use DEET, which you might be familiar with...

SOFIA: Very.

RAMIREZ: ...And you can use this thing called oil of lemon eucalyptus, or OLE, which I'd never heard of before.

SOFIA: What about citronella?

RAMIREZ: Oh, my God.

SOFIA: I feel like there are 10,000 citronella candles burning in D.C. in the summer at all times. Are they - do they actually do anything? Because I feel like they don't actually do anything.

RAMIREZ: Yeah. This one was hard for me. Here's me asking Eva.

Can you tell me one more thing? As like - being born and raised in Florida, citronella candles are supposed to be, like, the thing.

BUCKNER: (Laughter).

RAMIREZ: No?

BUCKNER: That's going to be one of those myths that...

RAMIREZ: Oh, no. All right (laughter).

BUCKNER: Sorry to shatter your hopes and dreams.

RAMIREZ: (Laughter) I mean, she's not sorry at all, but I'll let it slide.

SOFIA: (Laughter) At least she apologized, I guess (laughter). OK, OK. So citronella candles don't do much...

RAMIREZ: No.

SOFIA: ...Certainly less than DEET.

RAMIREZ: Yeah. My whole childhood basically was a beautifully smelling lie.

SOFIA: (Laughter) OK. So in order to be less of a mosquito magnet, in summary, I'm wearing white all the time - way past Labor Day. I don't care. Dark colors are out.

RAMIREZ: Totally. And you're definitely not out here exercising either.

SOFIA: I mean, never was, never will be.

RAMIREZ: Pandemic bod 2020...

SOFIA: (Laughter).

And also, I'm using DEET or OLE as a repellent.

RAMIREZ: Right. Right, right. Just use one of those, and make sure it's EPA registered insect repellent.

SOFIA: OK. Got it. What's next?

RAMIREZ: Yeah. Well, before we go, you know, in traditional Micro Wave fashion...

SOFIA: Right, right.

RAMIREZ: ...We're going to end on some listener mail.

SOFIA: OK. So today's listener mail comes from another Maddie (ph), who is hilarious. The email starts off, (reading) my name is Maddie Humphries (ph).

RAMIREZ: Nice to meet you, Maddie.

SOFIA: (Reading) And I got to say, Maddie Sofia is definitely the coolest of the two of us - for now.

RAMIREZ: Whoa.

(LAUGHTER)

RAMIREZ: OK.

SOFIA: (Reading) I'm a college sophomore. And although my major is still undecided, I would like to let you know that I am determined to become the coolest Maddie, and I will stop at nothing.

RAMIREZ: (Laughter).

SOFIA: (Reading) Well, I might stop each day to listen to SHORT WAVE while playing Minecraft.

RAMIREZ: Respect.

SOFIA: Very respectable, very respectable.

RAMIREZ: Totally.

SOFIA: (Reading) In all seriousness, SHORT WAVE has gotten me through this pandemic so far, and I recommend it to basically everyone all the time.

RAMIREZ: Wow. We stan a stan.

SOFIA: We stan a stan.

(Reading) I hope the whole team is doing well. You've all been such an inspiration to me. Thank you, and I appreciate you.

RAMIREZ: Aw.

SOFIA: Really nice, right? But wait for it.

(Reading) Signed, Maddie - parentheses, future coolest Maddie - parentheses, this is a threat.

(LAUGHTER)

RAMIREZ: I mean honestly, Maddie Humphries, just let us know when you're ready to take over. We are ready over here.

SOFIA: OK. All right. That's it for today's Micro Wave. Thank you to Emily from D.C. for inspiring us and to you, Rebecca, for teaching us all about these skeeters.

RAMIREZ: You got it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAMIREZ: Today's episode was produced by the queen of my producer heart, Brit Hanson; fact-checked by Maddie Sofia, soon to be overtaken - I see you, Maddie Humphries - and edited by Viet Le, editor extraordinaire.

SOFIA: Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR. See you next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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