Mosquito

A mosquito is seen in this 2007 photograph. According to Sikes, the mosquito is "one of the faster, smaller species that emerge later in the season — probably genus Ochlerotatus." Courtesy Derek Sikes

Along with muggy heat and thunderstorms, summer has brought with it swarms of Alaska’s unofficial state bird: the mosquito.

In the weeks since the state government lifted all mandates and many stores reopened for business, local residents have ransacked them of the bulk of their mosquito-repellant items. According to Daniel Shaw, manager of the Fairbanks REI, the store is completely out of mosquito traps and has sold “a higher volume of bug sprays” than it typically would.

“Obviously we are in unparalleled times now, so it’s difficult to gauge fully with the store having been shut down for two months,” Shaw said. “But I will say, from our perspective locally here, we’ve only been back open since June 1, and we are already completely out of Thermacell, which is our go-to mosquito repellent for an area.”

Shaw said that the sales are “definitely indicative of a higher need for it this year.” Other stores noted a similar increase in their sales of repellents and traps. Alaska Industrial Hardware’s manager said the store has sold a high volume of sprays, coils, candles, swatters and various other items.

But the question of exactly how much worse of a mosquito season the Interior is having is a tough one to answer, according to Derek Sikes, a professor of entomology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“I mean, I’ve been out — and it’s awful,” Sikes said.

While anecdotal accounts all indicate that this is a particularly bad year for mosquitoes, Sikes said there’s no agency or entity monitoring them. As such, there’s no data to gauge the average number of mosquitoes.

According to Sikes, the lack of data leads to other scientific queries. He said it’s apparent that mosquito populations vary wildly year to year but that there’s no way to figure out why.

“We do know that there’s a lot of variation in their populations, but we don’t have a good understanding of what drives those changes,” he said. “Some of the obvious considerations are moisture, precipitation, the amount of rainfall. Mosquitoes are an aquatic insect, so: the amount of rainfall the year before, snow depth, temperature. There are a lot of variables that could drive mosquito populations up and down and no one’s really done that work.”

That’s why Sikes and his colleagues are planning to instigate a citizen science mosquito-monitoring program in the summer of 2021. Sikes said their current plan is to establish a network of residents who use propane-based mosquito traps. The traps use carbon dioxide to attract only mosquitoes, and residents would be asked to hand their “mosquito harvest” over to the university at the end of the season.

Sikes said the plan is to conduct the monitoring over a number of years in order to build a data set that could be studied to answer some of these ecological questions. He said that planning will take place this winter.

“So, starting next summer, we’ll be able to hit the ground running,” he said. “Right now, we have no idea. There’s no data.”

In the meantime, Sikes was keen to plug propane-based mosquito traps as the best way to evade the insect. He said things like sprays and some electric traps are indiscriminate in their kills.

“Ecologically, you’d be killing a lot more than mosquitoes; you’re killing off maybe hundreds of different species on your property,” he said. “And pollinators, all sorts of insect life is lost. Including predators — you could be killing predators that are keeping the pests under control. Not to mention all the beekeepers out there who aren’t happy about the spraying.”

Sikes also noted, for those new to the Interior, that an electric bug zapper is a bad idea. Not only does Fairbanks see very little darkness over the summer, they also don’t target mosquitoes specifically.

“Most of the things that get killed by bug zappers are moths and other insects that don’t harm anybody,” he said.

Anyone interested in becoming involved in the planned citizen science mosquito monitoring project can contact Derek Sikes by email at dssikes@alaska.edu.

Contact staff writer Alistair Gardiner at 459-7575. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.