Not so fast. As West Nile Virus looms, mosquito traps are getting smarter
Tom McCurry is through swatting. For years, he fought back when swarms of mosquitoes attacked as he tended his flowers. And he always lost. This summer, however, the 65-year-old Texan plans to garden, putt on his backyard green, and invite the grandkids over for basketball. And blood suckers don't scare him. All it took was a couple of newfangled traps.
Mosquito victims across the country are buzzing about mosquito control. The reason is the mosquito-borne West Nile Virus. In 2002, there were 4,165 cases of West Nile in the United States, and 284 deaths. This summer, the disease is expected to reach all 48 continental states. "People are really spun up about this," says Joe Conlon, technical adviser for the American Mosquito Control Association, a group of academics and researchers who study the insects. Calls about trap technology are pouring in.
Eau de cow. The trap that McCurry bought has a catchy name--the Mosquito Magnet--and a catchier conceit. Developed by American Biophysics and launched in 1999, the Magnet sends out a plume of CO2, heat, and water vapor that mimics human breath. The powerful lure practically shouts "dinner!" to a hungry female mosquito (the only ones that bite). The trap also contains octenol, a chemical in cow's breath that's manna to many mosquitoes. A vacuum tube sucks them into a net in the trap; warm air from the fan dehydrates and kills them.
Mosquitoes tend to stick close to home--in this case, your yard. By systematically killing off females, which can lay between 400 and 600 eggs over their lifetime, the traps not only kill existing bugs but gradually reduce a yard's total populace.
McCurry first bought the Pro model, a propane-powered trap that protects a full acre and costs a steep $1,295. His second purchase was the Liberty, which covers the same range but is powered by electricity, for $495. This year, American Biophysics introduced the Defender, also electric, which protects a backyard-friendly half-acre, for $295. The company's trap sales went from $23 million in 2001 to $54 million in '02.
In United States Department of Agriculture tests last year, the Pro was No. 1. Overnight, it killed 650 to 735 mosquitoes out of 1,000 released in a cage, depending on the type of mosquito. Two other models, the Liberty and Coleman's Mosquito Deleto (which also uses an octenol lure), destroyed 275 to 500. Daniel Kline, a research entomologist with the USDA's Agricultural Research Service in Gainesville, Fla., says the 2003 versions of these traps are even better. Based on testing so far, he also likes Blue Rhino's new SkeeterVac.
But that's in the lab. In the backyard, says Kline, gusty winds can waft away the CO2. And not all 176 U.S. species like octenol. Trap manufacturers and the USDA are seeking new attractants.
While the current traps are pretty good, with time they should become more efficient and cheaper. (For prices and dealers, see mosquitomagnet.com, coleman.com, and skeetervac.com). But even now these devices beat other backyard remedies. Bug zappers blast bugs that eat mosquitoes. Foggers kill everything, even harmless bugs. And you'd practically have to sit on a citronella candle for it to have any effect.
Meanwhile, the old antiskeeter tricks still work. Most important: Dump standing water, including in gutters and pails. (Can't live without a birdbath? Prestrike, Wellmark's new professional-strength larvacide, kills mosquitoes before they hatch.) Other than that, the best preventives are long sleeves, long pants, and, in a pinch, DEET.
This story appears in the June 16, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.