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Mosquito vs. machine

A new swarm of entrepreneurs is seeking profits with gadgets that promise to entice and entrap one of our least favorite pests, mosquitoes.

By DAVE GUSSOW, Times Personal Technology Editor
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 3, 2002


Biting Back

Don't expect to conquer mosquitoes
You can spend a lot or a little to fight mosquitoes. In the end, you might control them, but you won't conquer them.

Review: Mosquito Magnet Liberty
Mosquito Magnet Liberty

Mosquitoes love the smell of cow's breath. Just a whiff of carbon dioxide drives 'em crazy. The pesky bugs follow the scent, knowing a quick bite for dinner isn't far away.

And what's that noise over by the patio? A heartbeat? It sounds like dessert.

In reality, they're traps, designed to mimic mammal traits and lure mosquitoes to their last meal. The latest weapons in the war on mosquitoes have names such as the Mosquito Magnet, Mosquito Deleto and the Mosquito Terminator. Call it man bites back.

"I've come to think of mosquitoes as little industrial robots," said James Nolen, president of BioSensory Inc. in Willimantic, Conn., the maker of the Mosquito Cognito and Dragonfly. "If you just screw up one of the things they're looking for, they don't see you as a host."

Nolen's devices interfere with the mosquitoes' sense of smell, keeping them away from people or animals, such as the U.S. Equestrian Team's horses, one of his company's customers.

The mosquito is one of mankind's least favorite pests, and a new crop of entrepreneurs is seeking profits by promising to entice and entrap them.

That's a prospect with special appeal in Florida, a tropical swampland of a state that's one big mosquito breeding ground. The state boasts 73 breeds of the pests, according to the American Mosquito Control Association (www.mosquito.org). A foolproof mosquito eliminator might be the biggest thing to hit Florida since Willis Haviland Carrier invented air conditioning in 1902.

But the bugs know no boundaries, and the merchandisers of mosquito devices sell nationwide. Interest in the new generation of machines increased in recent years as cases of mosquito-borne West Nile virus and St. Louis encephalitis were reported.

"In the last five years, it's just been an explosion of these mosquito-trapping devices," said Don Barnard, research leader at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service lab in Gainesville.

The latest generation of mosquito-killing machines is a far cry from the blue light electric zappers, which still are sold but have fallen from favor among the mosquito intelligentsia.

The zappers emit a blue light that attracts bugs, then electrifies those that hit its surface. But they're noisy and icky with fried bug bodies. Besides, they kill more good bugs than they do mosquitoes. Gadgets of this ilk created an image problem for the industry, which has to persuade consumers their machines aren't novelties or gimmicks.

The new machines can cost consumers $300 to $1,500, not including replacement chemicals. That's far more expensive than the couple of bucks needed for spray to kill them or repellent to keep them off you. Take one company, American Biophysics in East Greenwich, R.I. The maker of the Mosquito Magnet has seen its revenues grow from $900,000 to $23-million annually in three years, according to the Providence Journal.

"We're growing very rapidly, about 400 to 500 percent each year," said Ray Iannetta, president and chief executive of privately held American Biophysics (www.mosquitobiotrap.com), which includes Home Depot among its retailers.

Iannetta says business is brisk from Canada to the Caribbean. The Magnet originally sold for $1,295, but the company has added two other models at $795 and $495.

The Magnet uses a combination of propane gas, an attractant called octenol and heat to create a cloud of carbon dioxide. As the mosquitoes fly toward the smell, they are vacuumed into the device, where they dehydrate and die.

"In a defined area like your back yard, it would be a rare thing to be bitten" if the device is on hand, Iannetta said. "If someone says you're going to eliminate (mosquitoes), that's just not true."

Some companies spare no hype about their products, promising protection that experts say is impossible to guarantee. Even as they tout their products, some companies grumble about what they say are exaggerated claims from competitors.

"There are loopholes in the law that allow some folks to make those claims," BioSensory's Nolen said. "And frankly there aren't enough enforcement people. Everybody's supposed to tell the truth and not do misleading advertising."

Researchers say the science behind many of the machines is sound, but none will give it an official seal of approval. They also grit their teeth at some of the marketing claims.

"Some do catch more mosquitoes than others," said Barnard from the USDA lab. "What does that mean? Do you actually have a better trap? I can't answer those questions for people because the research and comparative evaluations have not been made."

Barnard's lab often is cited in advertising for the gadgets, but it has not approved the claims. Barnard says it has worked with some companies, but its main mission is to understand mosquitoes, how they respond to the devices, why they fly toward one and what stimulates them.

Comparison testing of the devices would be difficult, if not impossible, and expensive, according to John Smith, director of Florida A&M University's Public Health Entomology Research and Education Center in Panama City. Just getting similar weather, including wind and temperature, for a valid comparison would be a major factor.

"Not too many people have tried to do it," Smith said. "Those who did had results that were not conclusive."

As for the devices, Smith says it's tough to tame the great outdoors. "You have to catch an incredibly high number of mosquitoes to prevent a person from being bitten. That would require a high density of traps in a small area. There are not too many places I know that could afford to do that."

Some machines catch certain types of mosquitoes, but not others. And even if a machine does an effective job, it still may not be enough.

"I don't want to seem like I'm bad-mouthing the traps, per se," said Joe Conlon, technical adviser for the American Mosquito Control Association, which is made up of government mosquito control agencies and companies involved in pest control. "People should not rely on them as the sole means for reducing (mosquitoes). They have to get into the habitat, they still have to use repellents, screens, air conditioning and sometimes organized mosquito abatement districts" for fogging or spraying.

As technology improves, gadgets can surprise even the experts. The Sonic Web, using the catchy Web address www.fightthebite.com, uses smell, heat and the sound of a heartbeat to attract mosquitoes. Its maker says the $300 device has an advantage over machines that use just smell: The mosquitoes can still hear it, even if the wind is blowing.

"It's a big decoy," said Chris Mitchell, a spokesman for Applica Consumer Products, which markets products under brands such as Black & Decker. "You put it in your yard. You're not going to hear it. It works on low frequency. If you're entertaining in your back yard or pool, you want to put it about 20 feet away. The mosquitoes get attracted to the Sonic Web, not humans."

While it uses tech to attract mosquitoes, its trapping mechanism sounds very much like old-fashioned fly paper, which is coated with glue and needs to be replaced weekly.

And using such trapping devices can lead to other problems. "Traps seem to draw more mosquitoes into your area than they can possibly catch," said Conlon of the mosquito control association.

Another new entry is the Larvasonic. It's the brainchild of Mike Nyberg, a junior at Lyme-Old Lyme High School in Old Lyme, Conn., who came up with it as a science fair project.

"I work for him," said Herb Nyberg, Mike's father, who is now heading the effort to market the machine, which included a visit to Florida in May.

The machine uses sound waves to kill mosquito larvae in water. Drop it in, push a button and pull it out seconds later. Any larvae within 3 feet are killed instantly (the sound waves destroy their internal air bladders) and those within 5 feet are dead in 24 hours, Nyberg says.

The $4,500 Larvasonic is being marketed mainly to mosquito control districts and government agencies, which Nyberg says can easily make up the cost of the machines with savings on chemicals. Nyberg hopes to have a consumer model out in the next year or so.

Conlon has seen it demonstrated and was impressed with the results.

Maybe the mother of many of the current gadgets was a project at a condominium complex built in the middle of a mangrove swamp on the edge of the Everglades. It posed a particular challenge for the Collier Mosquito Control District.

"We could fly over them with our helicopter and treat the condo," said Jeff Stivers, the district's research director in Naples. "But we could not treat the surrounding mangrove because it's a sensitive kind of area."

Aerial spraying wasn't effective, getting rid of mosquitoes for only hours before new swarms moved in from the swamp. So about 1994, the district surrounded the complex with what amounted to a mosquito fence. It used carbon dioxide and octenol to create that irresistible cow's breath smell, and used insecticide to finish off the bugs. Residents were surveyed, and the district agreed that it was effective at controlling mosquitoes, but too costly to maintain as an ongoing effort. It could have cost the district more than $100 a day to run, Stivers says. So the district turned the system over to condo residents at the end of the three-year research project. The operating costs are included in the condo's maintenance fees, but it's estimated that each of the 72 units probably pays about $125 a year to keep the system running.

Stivers, who tells tales of mosquito swarms so thick that the district's workers sometimes have trouble breathing when checking traps, also is working on perfecting spray nozzles that will more effectively kill mosquitoes and be more environmentally friendly.

"You can help drop the population, but not eliminate," Stivers said. "That's not the aim of mosquito control. Our mission statement is (to) reduce mosquitoes to a tolerable level. That's about all people can expect."

--Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Dave Gussow can be reached at gussow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4228.

Mosquito facts

  • The United States is home to approximately 150 species.
  • That buzz your hear is the mosquito's wings moving about 1,000 times a second.
  • Mosquitos spread encephalitis, malaria and yellow fever by leaving germs behind after a bite.
  • Mosquitoes use standing water that collects in trees, swamps, tires, etc. to lay their eggs.
  • Mosquitoes range in size from 1/8 to 5/8 inch (3 to 16 mm) long.
  • Mosquitoes are technically flies, which are any insects with two wings.
  • The word mosquito is Spanish and means little fly.
  • A mosquito uses its needle-like nose to drink its food. Besides the blood of animals and humans, it also sips plant juices.
  • Only female mosquitoes feed on human beings and animals, and they use that blood to aid in the development of the 100 to 300 eggs that they are carrying. Some drink 1.5 times their weight at a time.
  • Different species prefer the blood of different animals. Some prefer cold-blooded animals, such as frogs or snakes, and some prefer cows, horses and people, and others will sip only from birds.
  • Female mosquitoes live up to a month or more, but males live only seven to 10 days.
  • Source: World Book Online Americas Edition

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