Why mosquitoes are drawn to you and what Maine researchers say you can do about it

Mosquito (Reuters/CDC photo)

A mosquito (Reuters/CDC photo)

Does it ever seem like mosquitoes are buzzing around just your head? Do you find yourself waving your hands around, swatting like a mad person while your friends shrug and say things like, “Actually, they’re not really bothering me…”

You’re not crazy. Mosquitoes may actually legitimately like you better, and there are scientific reasons for that. Fortunately, Maine researchers have been looking into all-natural ways you can make yourself less attractive to the little blood-sucking pests.

Mosquitoes can ruin a summer barbecue fast, and the preponderance of the annoying bugs is one of the biggest complaints made by tourists in our state.

Wrote one disgruntled visitor on the website VirtualTourist.com:

“There are stories from the frontier times that tell of people actually being driven insane by the swarming insects. Moose have even been known to spend most of their time in lakes to avoid the mosquitoes, with just the tips of their noses sticking out of the water. I once tried to take a walk in the woods near Moosehead Lake in northern Maine, and I had to literally run back to the car because the mosquitoes were so bad. I can really believe that people have been driven insane by these pests.”

But as it turns out, you haven’t gone around the bend if you think they’re singling you out.

All bitten up by mosquitoes. (Flickr photo by Deborah Austin / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ )

All bitten up by mosquitoes. (Flickr photo by Deborah Austin / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ )

Jonathan Day, a professor of medical entomology at the University of Florida at Vero Beach, told NBC News about 20 percent of the population are more attractive to mosquitoes than the rest of us.

And this goes beyond the factors we can control — mosquitoes have been shown to be visually drawn to dark clothing and aromatically drawn to people drinking beer, for instance.

Do you have Type O blood? A 2004 study found that mosquitoes are twice as likely to land on you as someone who has Type A blood, with the Type B people somewhere in between.

Are you a heavy breather? A mosquito zeroes in on her prey using an organ called a maxillary palp, according to Smithsonian.com, which detects exhaled carbon dioxide up to 164 feet away. The heavier you exhale, the bigger a target you become. People with high metabolic rates and who are larger tend to produce more carbon dioxide when they breathe.

Are you hot? People whose body temperatures run high — either because of pregnancy, physical activity or even just a headache — stand out to the heat sensitive little monsters, Day said.

What types of chemicals are you secreting? Some people naturally produce more uric acids than others, and mosquitoes consider those people to be prime blood-sucking candidates, entomologist John Edman told the website WebMD. If you’re really in a swatting mood, work up a sweat to produce more of the acidic scents the insects like, such as lactic acid and ammonia.

These aren’t the only factors that may make you a particularly viable blood donor to the mosquito cause, though. Joe Conlon of the American Mosquito Control Association told WebMD that “researchers are just beginning to scratch the surface” — no pun intended — on what tickles a mosquito’s fancy.

Thankfully, some of those researchers are right here in Maine.

A mosquito is caught in a plastic box by German researcher in 2013. (Reuters photo by Tobias Schwarz)

A mosquito is caught in a plastic box by German researcher in 2013. (Reuters photo by Tobias Schwarz)

In 2012, in response to news that state officials found mosquitoes carrying the deadly Eastern equine encephalitis in York County, a research team at the University of New England in Biddeford began studying the insects in earnest.

Noah Perlut, assistant professor of environmental studies, told the Bangor Daily News that Maine is actually home to around 40 different kinds of mosquitoes. Among the bug reduction plans implemented by the researchers was the distribution of certain plants near places students regularly walked.

Longtime UNE landscaper and gardener Phil Taschereau put together bouquets of plants such as mints, cintronella, sweet fern and monarda flowers and placed them near dormitory entrances, among other places.

In one of a handful of experiments, student test subject Sam Fields was covered by more than 50 mosquitoes standing 50 feet away from one of the plant arrangements.

When she moved to within 10 feet of the plants, the number of mosquitoes dropped to fewer than 30, and when she stood next to the vaguely orange- and mint-smelling leaves, her mosquito problem all but disappeared.

“If students just rub these plants as they’re coming or going from these buildings, it releases the oils into the air and gets it onto their skin,” Taschereau said at the time.

The natural plant oils, which the mosquitoes dislike, likely help cover up some of the human acids they’re drawn to.

People can also certainly use DEET- or picaridin-based chemical insect repellents, which remain among the most recommended ways to ward off mosquitoes, according to Conlon.

But the plant oils may be safer for infants, and a 2011 study indicated some mosquitoes can learn to ignore the repulsive smell of DEET.

A monarda flower at UNE. (BDN file photo by Seth Koenig)

A monarda flower at UNE. (BDN file photo by Seth Koenig)