W hack! I flail at the air with a rolled-up newspaper, but only manage to slap myself on the leg. A mosquito is buzzing round the bedroom and I know that unless I defeat this irritating insect I’ll wake up covered in bites. That’s assuming I get any sleep at all with that persistent droning in my ear.
To be honest, I’m surprised to be pestered by ‘mozzies’ this late in the year, but according to Public Health England (PHE) our warmer, wetter summers are ideal for the 34 species found in Britain. 2016 has been particularly bad with a soggy June, followed by a warm July and August. PHE’s surveillance of these biting bugs involves setting mosquito traps across the country from mid-April to mid-October. If, like me, you’re bitten in the autumn, it’s most likely to be by the most common variety. If it stays still, you might notice its striped legs and scaly wings which, from a distance, look spotted.
I’d rather not get up close and personal, but the mosquito has other ideas. She (and apparently it’s always a female which feeds indoors) swoops onto my arm, latching on before I manage to swat her away. Her tastes range to most invertebrates, so pets can get bitten too – although our tabby is dozing undisturbed. With a sharp jab of her proboscis, the mosquito sucks up blood to absorb protein needed to develop her eggs, injecting saliva to prevent the blood from clotting. She’s not fussy about blood group or skin colour, but is particularly attracted to warmer bodies, so pregnant women are frequent targets. And if you run or cycle, especially at dusk, make sure you cover up. Mosquitoes love both the lactic acid and the carbon dioxide we produce during exercise.
I stand in the middle of the room, weapon poised; the buzzing has stopped. Perhaps the mosquito has decided to attack another member of the family. I’m about to switch off the light, when the bug makes a kamikaze dive for my ankle. Luckily this time my aim is less clumsy and my tormentor is beaten!
It’s my own fault, of course. I should have closed the windows after dark, especially as there’s a water butt just a few metres below. In trying to conserve rainwater for the garden, I’ve unwittingly provided an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes. Apparently a mere inch of water is enough to lay up to two hundred eggs, so the bird bath is another choice spot. In fact any area of standing water – pond, ditch, abandoned watering can or dog bowl – can provide a perfect habitat for an opportunistic mosquito. The water doesn’t even have to be stagnant, clean is fine, and a sunny location suits just as well as a shady one. So as gardeners keen to provide drinking and bathing water for birds and other wildlife, we may have to put up with a bite or two.
But is there anything we can do to minimise our attractiveness to mosquitoes, especially as it seems some individuals are more susceptible than others? Personally, I’m not keen on spraying myself with insect repellent as I’m concerned about some of the ingredients. The best defence is to cover as much skin as possible and wear unscented body lotions and deodorants, but there are all sorts of suggestions as to what might repulse a mozzie. You could rub your skin with garlic or Vaporub (smelly), or with a sheet of fabric softener (Bounce or own brand, I don’t suppose it matters). It’s rumoured that golfers in swampy Florida dangle these from their belts. Some people recommend catmint and rosemary tea; don’t drink it, but allow it to cool and spray it on. Fill your garden with marigolds and basil. Try a diet of Marmite, garlic and almonds, but whatever you do, don’t eat bananas – mosquitoes love them. Of course, for every person who swears by any of these solutions, there’s another who claims it’s useless.
Luckily for us, although the British mosquito is annoying, and its bite can be itchy or even painful, it’s unlikely to spread serious disease. Besides, unless you’re heading south for the winter, colder weather’s on the way and the mozzies will be gone for another year.