10 Things You Didn't Know About Mosquitoes

This ancient pest is a bit more complex than you may have thought. Tomatito/Shutterstock

The oldest known mosquito similar to our modern species was found in a piece of amber in Canada dating back some 79 million years — meaning this pesky pest has been driving us crazy for a long time. And these days, they're annoying us more than ever as mosquito season is getting longer, especially along the East Coast and Midwest, due to a changing climate bringing warmer and more humid conditions.

As with any long, complex relationship, we now have a greater understanding of this interesting creature. Consider the following:

1. The smell of chocolate confuses them

The carbon dioxide we exhale excites and attracts mosquitoes, which is a bummer since we can’t exactly stop breathing to prevent their stealthy attacks. But researchers have found that certain scents — some of them minty, some fruity, and some that smell like caramelized chocolate — can stun the buzzing bugs' carbon dioxide sensors, thus making it harder to find their next dinner.

2. Mosquitoes buzz in our ears because …

Mosquitoes can sense carbon dioxide up to 100 feet away. Since human beings exhale carbon dioxide through the nose and mouth, mosquitoes are attracted to our heads, perhaps leading to more incidents of "self-slapping while sleeping" than any other cause.

A mosquito on a flower
Male mosquitoes are the ones out gathering nectar. lostbear/Shutterstock

3. Male mosquitoes are passive

Female mosquitoes are the ones that bite animals and feed on blood; while they're causing us misery, male mosquitoes are flitting about the flowers and feed on nectar.

4. Viruses increase their bloodlust

Female mosquitoes already have an unquenchable need for blood, but researchers have found that the dengue virus, which the mosquitoes transmit to humans, makes them even hungrier for the red stuff. The virus manipulates the insect's genes to make them thirstier for blood; it also activates genes to increase the mosquitoes' sense of smell to become better hunters. (What a brilliant and creepy virus!)

5. Parasites make them go nuts for dirty socks

Not only do parasites live on and feed from their hosts, but these clever creatures can manipulate the behavior of their hosts to increase their odds of spreading. Scientists have shown that mosquitoes infected with the malaria parasite want longer and more frequent blood meals than non-infected mosquitoes, all to better the chance of getting a human host. Other research has found that mosquitoes with malaria are also drawn to the smell of human sweat; as was evidenced in experiments with the use of a well-worn sock.

Mosquito silhouette on human skin at sunset
Mosquitoes' saliva makes it easier for them to get to our blood and it makes us itch. mycteria/Shutterstock

6. Mosquito spit is itchy

When a mosquito has set her sights on a target, she hones in, dive-bombs, and inserts her wee little proboscis into the victim's skin. As she sucks she leaves behind a dollop of saliva, which serves as an anticoagulant so that she may better feast. Unfortunately, most of us have a natural immune response to mosquito slobber that results in histamines and the dreaded itch.

7. Not all mosquitoes carry West Nile virus

Of the thousands of known mosquito species, the dreaded West Nile virus is found in around 60 of them. (It's also found in more than 200 vertebrates.) The virus usually cycles between Culex mosquito species and common urban birds like robins, northern cardinals and house sparrows. Nearly 80 percent of people who are infected with the virus will not show any symptoms, which range from mild irritation and stupor to coma and death.

A photo of the Alexander Mosaic in Naples
One of the world's premier conquers, Alexander the Great may have been brought to his death by a lowly mosquito. Ruthven/Wikimedia Commons

8. Alexander the Great may have died from a mosquito bite

Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia and conqueror of the Persian Empire, never lost a battle and is considered one of history's most successful commanders, but he may have met his final defeat at the hands (or mouth) of a mosquito infected with West Nile virus. A paper published in 2003 argues that a lone mosquito infected with the virus was his ultimate undoing.

9. They're petite yet pokey

An average mosquito weighs 2 to 2.5 milligrams, which would seem to enable them to fly more swiftly, but not so. Mosquitoes fly at speeds between 1 and 1.5 miles per hour, making them one of the slowest flying insects of all.

10. Mosquitoes are the deadliest animals in the world

Beware the dangers of tigers, sharks, snakes? Actually, fear the mosquito, the most lethal creature on the planet. More deaths are caused by mosquitoes than any other animal, thanks to bugs' aid in spreading malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever and encephalitis. A single malarial mosquito can infect more than 100 people; and according to the World Health Organization, malaria kills a child every 45 seconds in Africa.