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New Street Lamps Lure Mosquitoes With Fake Human Scents

Lighting the way in the fight against mosquitos

A mosquito feeding on a small Northern Bog Orchid (Platanthera obtusata) (Mark Moffett/Minden Pictures/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

When setting a trap, it makes sense to tailor the bait to the tastes of whatever critter you’re trying to snag. Whether it’s a mousetrap or a roach motel, that old saying about catching more flies with honey tends to be true. So when it comes to baiting mosquito traps, it makes sense to make them smell like one of their favorite foods: people.

A group of researchers at the University of Malaysia have developed a new kind of street lamp that not only uses energy-efficient LEDs to light dark streets, but also act as mosquito traps by exuding an odor that mimics natural human scents. According to lead researcher Chong Wen Tong, the lamp emits low levels of carbon dioxide mixed with titanium dioxide and ultraviolet light, the combination of which drives mosquitoes wild, Carla Kweifio-Okai reports for The Guardian.

“The mosquito trap takes advantage of the mosquito’s sensory abilities by tricking them with features that mimic the odors associated with humans,” Chong tells Kweifio-Okai. Once the scent lures in the unsuspecting mosquito, a fan sucks them into a net inside the street light that makes it impossible for them to get away.

Chong developed the combination street lamp/mosquito trap as a way to bring better light sources to Malaysian cities and remote communities while fighting the disease-spreading insects. In addition to dangerous diseases like malaria, mosquitoes also spread dengue fever, which has grabbed a particularly strong foothold in Asian and Pacific countries over the last 50 years. According to the World Health Organization, 1.8 billion people in Asia and the Pacific are at risk of being infected with dengue annually, and about 500,000 people worldwide are hospitalized from the disease each year. Across Asia, the economic impact of dengue fever alone is an estimated $2 billion per year, Kweifio-Okai reports.

While Chong has yet to install the lamps outside of a small pilot program in Kuala Lumpur, a group of sensory biologists at the University of Washington have discovered an orchid that uses similar bait to lure in mosquitoes. According to a new study, a certain species of bog orchid that grows in the United States’ Pacific Northwest uses a scent similar to human body odor to trick mosquitoes into becoming pollinators, Elizabeth Pennisi writes for Science.

The smell given off by the orchid species Platanthera obtusata isn’t strong enough that the human nose would think it needs a hit of deodorant, but researchers discovered that the scent sets off electrical sensors in the mosquitoes’ antennae. That suggests that the buzzing insects might be attracted to the smell, which is composed of several chemicals found in human B.O., Pennisi reports.

In a presentation Monday at the 2016 annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, the researchers noted that the orchids supply female tiger mosquitoes with the necessary carbs, and the mosquitoes pollinate the plants in return, Sarah Sloat writes for Inverse. By observing how the mosquitoes behave around the orchids, researchers could figure out new kinds of bait to lure the biting bugs away from their human prey.

h/t PSFK

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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