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Peoria lab researches mosquitoes

Published: Wednesday, May 21, 2014 6:00 a.m. CDT
Caption
In this April 23, 2014 photo, a yellow fever mosquito, or Aedes aegypti, feeds on pig blood in a lab at the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria. Scientist Alejandro Rooney is engaged in new research efforts to battle dangerous mosquito varieties such as the Asian Tiger, yellow fever and floodwater species at the Peoria Ag Lab. (AP Photo/Journal Star, David Zalaznik)

PEORIA (AP) — Mosquitoes kill 1 million people each year, according to the World Health Organization, making it the deadliest animal in the world.

A Peoria scientist at the Ag Lab is at the forefront of a war against this killer.

Scientist Alejandro Rooney is engaged in new research efforts to battle dangerous mosquito varieties such as the Asian Tiger, yellow fever and floodwater species at the Peoria Ag Lab.

"Mosquitoes carry some nasty diseases — like dengue fever, chikungunya and West Nile Virus," said Rooney, the research leader of the crop bio protection unit at the U.S. Department of Agriculture lab at 1815 N. University St.

"There's also the tree hole mosquito that can spread encephalitis," he said, adding that mosquitoes also pose a threat to livestock.

It's enough to call off summer and pray for the return of the Polar Vortex.

But Rooney and his team have a battle plan.

"We're trying to develop environmentally friendly ways to kill mosquitoes — with fungi," he said.

Specifically, the fungi would go after mosquito eggs before they hatch.

"The new strategy, the Holy Grail of mosquito control, is to kill them before they hatch," said Rooney.

To battle a pest that has stood its ground for so long, one has to know the enemy — and share that information with the public.

"Make sure you clean out gutters and places where water can collect. Mosquitoes can also breed in empty containers and bird baths," Rooney said.

"What they're attracted to are the microbes — and the foul odors — from standing water. They're drawn to it to lay their eggs," he said.

"We're finding locations where mosquitoes breed in mass. We're teaming up with mosquito expert Jack Swanson of the Peoria Public Health Department along with experts from the University of Illinois. It's a big team effort," said Rooney.

"May is traditionally a bad time for mosquitoes," said Phil Nixon, an entomologist with University of Illinois Extension, who identifies the specific culprit out of the 176 species of mosquitoes known to exist in the United States.

"The inland floodwater mosquito is the one that buzzes your ear and drives you inside on a summer evening as it whines about your head. It has a range of 30 to 60 miles so you're not going to get rid of it," said Nixon.

These mosquitoes hatch in the spring but need water — warm water — with temperatures in the 70s to bring them out, said Nixon, suggesting that spring showers and warming temperatures set the stage.

"We can almost always count on their arrival just in time for the Memorial Day weekend," he said.

Other mosquitoes, some that carry diseases, do better in hot, dry weather. Look for them in mid-summer, said Nixon.

The insect's story is one that indicates how little size matters in the animal kingdom. The mosquito, after all, is a tiny creature that weighs just 2.5 milligrams and lives only four to six weeks.

But the mosquito has been buzzing around the planet for 400 million years, biting dinosaurs before people. Now that humans have inherited the Earth, the little bug may be mankind's biggest challenge, spreading diseases estimated to have killed billions.

That might explain why a big team effort is needed to counter perennial pests. After all, teams have been organized before. The first effort to form a national organization of mosquito control workers in the United States came in 1903. The Illinois Assembly set up mosquito abatement districts back in 1927.

Rooney said some of the old precautions still make sense. "You want to wear protective clothing, such as a long-sleeve shirt at night," he said.

DEET is still an effective repellent and citronella candles help but are not 100 percent effective, said Rooney.

Meanwhile, traps are set up and being checked twice a week, said Melissa Goetze, environmental health supervisor at the Tazewell County Health Department.

The problem is West Nile Virus, she said. "We have concerns going into this year. We're hoping that a nice cold winter will keep the (mosquito) numbers down. Looking at results after the rainy season will tell the story," said Goetze.

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