Could we make ourselves disgusting to mosquitoes?

Or should we stick to the classics?
03 May 2024
Presented by Will Tingle
Production by Rhys James.


A mosquito biting


Thanks to Professor Heather Ferguson for the answer!

This episode of Question of the Week, listener Donald asks:

"Assuming mosquitoes have taste buds, then they should have adverse tastes. Have molecular scientists explored how to make or find chemicals that make mosquitoes disgusted?”

Will - As someone who's about to head off to a particularly mosquito-heavy part of the world, I too would find great reassurance in knowing that I was using the most effective means of preventing a mozzie bite. Paul on the forum is thinking long term and says 'there is hope that current experimental malaria vaccines may obviate the need for repellent,' which would be nice. Alan is thinking even further ahead and says, 'we, or at least our successors, need to evolve an active molecule that can be exuded in human sweat.' But for now we might have to resort to good old chemicals and to find out more, I've linked up with professor of entomology and disease ecology at the University of Glasgow, Heather Ferguson, and with mosquito season just starting in Scotland, it seemed like the perfect time to ask can mosquitoes even taste?

Heather - Indeed they do. So mosquitoes can taste in a number of different ways. First of all, they have sensory mechanisms that allow them to smell from quite a long distance and that is influencing their ability to taste as well. So that's how they can pick up the odour of a host. Additionally, they can also do what we would consider more conventional taste actually in their feet. So when they land on a host, they have chemoreceptors on there and they can get a sense of sort of the flavour of the host as well as in their sort of salivary glands or when they're probing you.

Will - It sounds like a bit of a leap then to be able to identify something that the mosquitoes might find disgusting.

Heather - Well, it's hard to define what disgust means to a mosquito, but it could be what we think of something that is repellent that pushes them away and they won't even approach. When we think about disgusting in terms of, of a taste, ideally we would want the mosquitoes to be disgusted before they even came close to a person. So if they have to wait to taste you, which would happen when they actually land upon you, that's quite close. So what we would like is that feeling of disgust or repellency to actually happen before they even get ready to land and take a bite to stop them actually even approaching you in the first place.

Will - What is wrong with traditional repellents? Because correct me if I'm wrong, they're more of a masking agent than a repellent, as the name suggests, but would anything we would make that could make mosquitoes disgusted, if that's the word, be worth making when we've already got this substance that does a pretty good job anyway?

Heather - No, I'm probably on the side of repellent <laugh> because repellents are so disgusting to mosquitoes that we often describe them as irritants. The mechanism by which they push the mosquito away is not always known, but there's something that makes it so difficult for the mosquito to even come close to the host, but that is pushing them away and I would go for that anytime. Then something that would actually work by still having the mosquito land on you may start to probe with its proboscis and then go, 'ugh.' At that stage, that's too late. I want it to stop it even getting near me.

Will - Sage advice. I will be sticking to the classics. Thank you to Donald for the question and to Heather Ferguson for the answer.


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