GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Have you heard someone complain that “mosquitoes love them?” Or just the opposite — that “mosquitoes never bother them?” A new study conducted by researchers at the University of Washington may have found evidence to support that.
The study, published earlier this month in the scientific journal “Nature,” found that a specific species of mosquito is attracted to certain colors. Shades of red, orange, black or cyan were much more likely to attract the insects compared to shades of green, blue, purple and white. But the effectiveness goes far beyond the color of your clothing. The hues in your skin also play a role.
Researchers have already established that three main factors play a role in mosquito bites: our breath, sweat and skin temperature. Mosquitoes have a limited range of sight, so they find mammals by smell — searching for carbon dioxide. Humans can’t detect the odor of the gas but mosquitoes can, and when they do it triggers a feeding response.
Jeffrey Riffell, a professor of biology at the University of Washington and one of the lead authors on the study, told Newsweek that mosquitoes can smell carbon dioxide from up to 100 feet away.
“CO2 travels far distances,” Riffell told Newsweek. “Their vision is not as good as ours, but they can start seeing us from 20 feet away or so. Once they see us, they investigate us.”
Virtually any skin tone shows red hues, especially when someone has been in the sun or working up a sweat. Riffell believes those red hues help attract mosquitoes.
“The mosquitoes have all of these redundant systems, so they’re not only detecting us by CO2 but they’re looking at us visually for red. They’re also looking for heat or body vapor for sweat,” he told Newsweek.
For the study, researchers built a large wind tunnel where they could simulate the environment and used approximately 1.3 million mosquitoes. They experimented using a wide array of colors and hues and filtered in carbon dioxide to trigger the insects. The research showed the mosquitoes favored colors with longer light wavelengths — colors that humans perceive has red or orange — compared to others with shorter wavelengths. They also found that the more contrast between the subject and the background, the more likely a mosquito would be attracted.
Still, there is a long way to go before humans eradicate the scourge known as the mosquito bite. Timothy Best, a certified entomologist with Terminix, told Prevention Magazine that it’s important to understand the context of the study.
“It should be noted that there are about 200 different species of mosquito in the United States, so this attraction is likely to be a species-specific trait, and not all encompassing of all species,” Best told Prevention.
The University of Washington researchers hope their work will help them develop more efficient traps to collect mosquitos so they can test for mosquito-borne diseases. But the findings and future studies could also help everyday people trying to avoid bites around the campfire.
“What makes this, I think, a really important study is we identified the colors that they find attractive and we are producing,” Riffell told Newsweek. “It’s like their signature. We can make ourselves basically invisible to the mosquitoes by using these optical filters.”