How bad are the mosquitoes this year?

Ask 8-year-old Bea in Hamden, Connecticut, who counted the 29 mosquito bites she got the other night.

“I was playing catch with my dad and I couldn't focus because I was being bitten by these mosquitoes.”

Or Mark Miklosovich, who has a mosquito control business in Brooklyn. He perfected his technique while mosquito-proofing resorts in Thailand and Indonesia. When he returned this past December, he wasn’t planning on doing mosquito work full time. But he said he has been at it seven days a week since June.

“I mean, my thermometer is: mosquitoes don’t bother me. But just within the last couple of weeks they’ve been just destroying me,” Miklosovich said.

Listen to Amy Pearl’s report on WNYC:

But according to the City’s Department of Health, the mosquitoes were actually worse last summer. While mosquito spraying was delayed by COVID-19 this spring, traps set by the city caught an average of 65 mosquitoes a day this year, compared to 87 a day last year.

“Especially with the pandemic it’s so hard to say whether mosquitoes have changed or whether people’s behavior has changed," said Nipun Basrur, who studies mosquitoes in the Vosshall Lab at Rockefeller University. “I am certainly spending more time outside, maybe other people are doing the same? Maybe that’s why they encounter mosquitoes more.”

Basrur is a neurogeneticist, which means he studies the genetics underlying mosquito behavior. He’s dedicated to studying why mosquitoes are so good at finding and biting humans.

“If a mosquito smells CO2 she gets up and flies,” Basrur explained. “She really likes the smell of humans, she uses the heat of our skin, and potentially the humidity to land on our skin. She can then pierce with her stylet and then she can start pumping up blood.”

Only female mosquitoes bite humans; males drink nectar. Females drink it too, but “a female really needs blood to make eggs,” Basrur noted.

Mosquitoes are exceptionally good at transmitting disease. In New York City, mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus have already been detected in every borough this summer.

Basrur painstakingly breeds mosquitoes in his lab to try and stop them from spreading disease.

His project is aimed at manipulating mosquito genes to breed females that have no interest in humans.

When I asked Basrur how he feels about the mosquitoes in his lab, his answer surprised me.

“It is weird but they are in a sense my babies,” he said. “This is actually a specific genetic strain where I knocked in a protein into its genome, I like designed everything for it, many generations feeding on my arm.”

Yes, Basrur feeds his babies himself. Sometimes when you make genetically modified mosquitoes, you only have one or two viable ones, “so you have to give them the best meal possible.”

At feeding time, Basrur let me be a fly on the wall via Zoom.

Neurogeneticist Nipun Barsur displays his mosquitos in his lab before feeding time.

Basrur had three mosquito cages laid out on a lab table. They looked like cubes with three mesh sides, like a habitrail for mosquitoes. To feed them, he simply placed his arm on the mesh of the cage. Immediately the insects flew toward his forearm. I asked him how many were on him.

“I’d say maybe 100 so it’s not too bad,” he replied.

Gradually, the mosquitoes became fatter and darker as they drank double their body weight of Basrur’s blood. “Okay, I think they are probably done,” he said, lifting his arm off the mess of the cage and tilting it toward the camera. There were a lot of mosquito bites.

“Oh no,” I couldn’t help exclaiming.

“Yes,” Basrur answered, turning his arm to survey the damage.

Neurogeneticist Nipun Barsur's arm after feeding time.

Basrur insisted the bites didn’t hurt or even itch much—he’s done this so many times, his body has built up a resistance. In fact, as soon as the Zoom was over, he planned to feed the other two cages with the same arm.

Basrur said he has developed a grudging respect for the blood suckers.

“They live such a dangerous lifestyle,” he enthused. “The female is constantly at risk of getting squished by an angry host, getting diseases from the people that she bites—it’s really, really amazing what the female will go through to make babies.”