Mosquitoes and the Diseases They Transmit
J. A. Jackman and J. K. Olson*
Mosquitoes are among the most important insect pests affecting the health of people and animals. Biting female mosquitoes not only irritate people and animals, but they can also transmit many disease-causing organisms.
Annoying populations of mosquitoes can occur anywhere in Texas because there are habitats favorable for mosquito species almost everywhere in the state. To control mosquitoes effectively, it helps to understand their life cycle, to be able to identify the various kinds of mosquitoes, and to know what steps work best for the different species and specific locations.
Life historyMosquitoes have four distinct stages during their life cycle: egg, larva, pupa and adult. The adult stage is free flying; the other stages are aquatic. The length of time that a mosquito takes to complete its life cycle varies according to food availability, weather conditions and the species of mosquito. Under favorable conditions, some mosquitoes can complete their entire life cycle in only 8 to 10 days.
Egg: One way to identify the breeding sites of mosquitoes is to find the eggs. Mosquito eggs may be laid in clusters called rafts on the water surface. They may also be laid singly on the water surface or in dry areas that are flooded periodically. When first laid, mosquito eggs are white, but within a few hours they become dark brown to black. The shape and size of mosquito eggs vary, with most being football or boat shaped and 0.02 to 0.04 inch long. In warm water, the eggs may hatch in 2 to 3 days. Some mosquito eggs can remain dormant in dry conditions for many months.
Larva: Mosquito eggs hatch into long larvae called wigglers, which are seldom over 1/2 inch long. Wigglers have three body sections: a small head, an enlarged thorax (the middle section) and a long, cylinder-shaped abdomen. Wigglers live only in water. Most of them feed on microscopic plants, animals and organic debris suspended in the water. They filter the food particles from the water with their brush-like mouth parts. The larvae of some mosquito species are predators that feed on other mosquito larvae. Most mosquito larvae mature in 4 to 10 days, passing through four instars (growth stages) and then transforming into the pupal stage. The length of a mosquito’s larval development period depends on food, temperature and species.
While feeding or breathing, mosquito larvae assume distinctive positions in the water. For most species, the larva breathes through an air tube located near the end of the abdomen. It projects the air tube through the water surface and hangs head down at an angle to the water surface, with only the tip of the breathing tube coming into contact with the surface of the water.
An exception is the larvae of Anopheles mosquitoes. They lack air tubes and tend to lie flat against the water surface.
One way to control mosquitoes in the larval stage is to apply a surface film of certain petroleum products in standing water. This film disrupts their breathing and kills the larvae.
Pupa: The pupal stage is the transitional stage between the mosquito larvae, which live in the water, and the adults, which live on land. Mosquito pupae do not eat. They spend most of their time at the water surface and tend to move only when disturbed. Mosquito pupae are sometimes called tumblers because of their tumbling motion in water when they are disturbed. Mosquito pupae are comma-shaped and, like the larvae, breathe through air tubes at the surface of standing water. The front region of the pupa’s body is greatly enlarged, consisting of a fused head and thorax. A pair of respiratory tubes, or trumpets, extends from the back of the thorax and are used at the water surface to breathe air. The pupal abdomen or tail consists of several segments that move freely.
The pupal stage may last from 1 to 10 days, or even more, depending on the temperature and the mosquito species involved. Pupae may also be killed with surface film treatments.
Adult: Adult mosquitoes have wings. Male mosquitoes feed only on nectar, plant juices and other sources of liquid carbohydrates. Male mosquitoes usually emerge a few hours up to a few days before the females emerge. The males rest in the vegetation surrounding the emergence site, waiting for females to emerge.
Female mosquitoes also feed periodically on nectar, plant sap and other sources of plant carbohydrates for energy. However, the females of most species must have a blood meal as a source of protein before they can produce eggs.
Mating usually occurs near the emergence site and coupling occurs quickly in the air. Female mosquitoes can fertilize all of their eggs after a single mating because they can store the sperm internally. Male mosquitoes usually die shortly after the mating period.
Adult female mosquitoes typically live for about a week to a month, but this can vary depending on several environmental factors. Some species overwinter (spend the winter) as engorged mated females that may live up to 6 months or more.
When female mosquitoes are inactive, they rest in protected areas that are typically dark or shaded, humid, and cool in the summer or warm in the winter.
The mouthparts of female mosquitoes are complex and form a prominent beak or proboscis. When a mosquito takes a blood meal, it uses its mouthparts to puncture the skin of the host and feed directly from the capillaries (small blood vessels).
As it feeds, the mosquito injects a small amount of saliva into the wound before drawing blood. The saliva makes penetration easier and prevents the blood from clotting during feeding. In most cases, the itching and swelling caused by the saliva subside within a few hours.
The adult mosquitoes around your home may have come from a breeding site near or far away, depending on the species, wind patterns and the flight habits of the females:
- Aedes aegypti breed primarily in and around human habitations and fly short distances, usually only about 200 yards.
- Most Anopheles mosquitoes have a flight range of about 1 mile. Psorophora species have flight ranges of at least 5 miles.
- Some salt-marsh mosquitoes in the genera Aedes and Ochlerotatus can disperse with the prevailing winds for 20 to 40 miles or more away from the larval development sites.
You need to recognize these flight distances in order to find the source of mosquito problems and choose the appropriate management strategies. If the source of the mosquitoes is not on your property, you may need to cooperate with others to be able to control them. In some cases, you may be unable to control them at all.
Identifying mosquitoesAll mosquitoes are classified in the order Diptera (true flies) and in the family Culicidae, which has more than 2,500 recognized species in the world. Adult mosquitoes are small, long-legged flies that have two wings like most other true flies.
All adult mosquitoes have three characteristics in combination, which separates them from all other flies:
- Long, many-segmented antennae
- A piercing and sucking mouthpart system elongated into a distinctive beak or proboscis, at least in the females
- Scales on the wing veins and margins
To control the mosquitoes in your area, first you need to know what kinds are living there. At least 84 species of mosquitoes are known to occur in Texas. These species have considerable variation in their larval breeding sites, time of day when they bite, and flight distances of the adults.
Table 1 provides a summary of this information for some common species in Texas. Identification of larvae or adult mosquitoes to species is complicated and generally requires considerable expertise and training. If there is a question about the species involved, it is best to send samples to an identification lab. A mosquito control district, a university, or a pest control operator should be able to help.
Table 1. Biological data on 20 common species of mosquitoes found in Texas
Mosquito Species Larval Habitat(s) Biting Time Flight Range Aedes aegypti AC C, D under 100 yards Aedes albopictus AC, TH C, D 100 - 300 yards Aedes vexans FW, GP, IP C, N 10 - 25+ miles Anopheles punctipennis WP C, N 0 - 0.25 mile Anopheles quadrimaculatus FW, GP, LM C, N 0.5 - 1 mile Culex erraticus WP N 0 - 0.25 mile Culex nigripalpus GP, FW, DD C 0.5 - 1 mile Culex quinquefasciatus AC, SCB, GRP C, N 0.25 - 0.5 mile Culex restuans WP, GRP, DD C, N 1 - 2 miles Culex salinarius GP, LM, FS, SM C, N 0.25 - 5 miles Culiseta melanura FS, WP C, N 0.5 - 1 mile Ochlerotatus (=Aedes) atlanticus WP C, D 0.25 - 0.5 mile Ochlerotatus (=Aedes) canadensis WP, DD, FS C 0 - 0.25 mile Ochlerotatus (=Aedes) sollicitans SM C, N, D 5 - 40 miles Ochlerotatus (=Aedes) aeniorhynchus SM C, N, D 5 - 40 miles Ochlerotatus (=Aedes) triseriatus TH, AC D 0.5 - 1 mile Psorophora ciliata IP, RF, GRP C, N 5 - 10 miles Psorophora columbiae IP, RF, GRP C, N 5 - 10 miles Psorophora ferox WP C, N 1 - 2 miles Psorophora howardii WP, Coastal Pools C, N 1 - 2 miles AC: Artificial containers GP: Grassland pools RE: Rooted emerged vegetation DD: Drainage ditches GRP: Ground pools RF: Rice fields FS: Freshwater swamps IP: Irrigated pastures SCB: Sewage catch basins FW: Flood waters LM: Lake margins SM: Salt marshes WP:Woodland pools TH: Tree holes C: Crepuscular (dusk and dawn) D: Day N: Night Modified from the original source: http://www.deh.enr.state.nc.us/phpm/Pages/Biology.html
Mosquito species are often divided into groups based on where the females lay their eggs and where the larvae
Groups of mosquitoes
develop. There are different control strategies for each group. The Center for Disease Control and
Prevention (CDC) has developed a convenient grouping of four mosquito types according to the habitats in
which the larvae generally develop:
- Permanent pool group
- Transient water group
- Floodwater group
- Artificial container and tree-hole group
Understanding these groups will help you determine the source of the mosquitoes and what control measures
are likely to help.
Table 2 provides a summary of these groups, the more problematic genera and/or species, larval breeding habitats and general management approaches.
Table 2. Mosquito groups, their breeding sites and management suggestions for each group.
Mosquito Group General and/or species Breeding Sites General Management Approaches Permanent Anopheles, some Culex Standing water that seldom dries, edges of ponds, lakes and small impoundments
Biological control—using mosquito fish, nematodes and Bacillus thuringiensis israelinsis toxin and Bacillus sphaericus
Habitat disruption—draining the water
or removing plants
Transient Culiseta, some Culex occasionally Anopheles Roadside ditches, excavations, canals, ground pools, catch basins, storm sewers, clogged streams, irrigated land
Biological control—using nematodes, and Bacillus thuringiensis israeliensis toxin and Bacillus sphaericus
Habitat disruption - removing the water and removing plants
Floodwater Aedes, Ochlerotatus, Psorophora flood plains, salt marshes, small sites, even animal footprints
Habitat disruption - draining the water where mosquitoes breed
Chemical suppression - using insecticides against adults and/or larvae
Artificial container and tree hole Mostly Aedes, especially Aedes aegypti, Aedes albopictus and Ochlerotatus (=Aedes) triseriatus Artificial containers, discarded tires, tin cans, flower pots, cemetary vases, roof gutters, tree holes, water caught in bromeliads, orchids and other plants
Sanitation - removing food, water and shelter
Habitat disruption - draining the water in small containers
Managing mosquitoesTo control mosquitoes effectively long-term, you need to use several complementary management techniques,
- Sanitation — removing food, water, and shelter
- Habitat disruption — draining the water where mosquitoes breed
- Biological control — using mosquito fish, nematodes, and Bacillus thuringiensis israeliensis toxin and
- Mechanical control — maintaining window screens and altering building designs
- Personal protection — wearing protective, lightcolored, loose-fitting clothing; using repellents;
and avoiding activities in areas when mosquitoes are active
- Chemical suppression — using insecticides against adults and/or larvae
Mosquito control is often complex and expensive, requiring the cooperation of individual homeowners as
well as such groups as industry, agriculture, state agencies and local governments.
Some communities may have to take an areawide approach to mosquito control and hire permanent control
personnel. These areawide programs are sometimes the only solution to a mosquito problem. Areawide mosquito
control programs can provide manpower and expertise that are usually unavailable to homeowners.
In these programs, trained personnel conduct mosquito surveys to identify the species, track the population
levels and determine appropriate management alternatives. Areawide management can provide relief from mosquito problems that develop miles away from the affected area.
Laws have been enacted in Texas enabling various groups to form mosquito control districts. The Texas Department of Health in Austin can provide information on how to establish a control district. The Texas Animal
Health Commission monitors the mosquito-borne animal diseases in the state.
Homeowners can reduce their local program in many cases. More specific management actions are provided
by location in Table 3. Evaluate your area to recognize the likely larval breeding sites for mosquito larvae then
take appropriate action.
Table 3. Possible mosquito sources around the home and other property.
Mosquito Sources How to Reduce Mosquitoes Ponds Stock the pond with fish.
Use Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis (such as Mosquito Dunks®)
Remove excess vegetation.
Swimming pools Keep water off the cover.
Maintain water quality at all times.
Tree holes Fill the holes with sand, or drill a drain hole. Plastic pools Drain the water when not in use or cover the pool to prevent mosquitoes from
laying eggs in the water.
Containers Empty the water.
Store the containers in an inverted position.
Dispose of the containers.
Cover the containers so mosquitoes cannot lay eggs in them.
Bird baths Change the water at least once a week. Standing water Eliminate it by draining it.
Fill in low areas.
Watering troughs Stock the trough with fish.
Change the water weekly.
Cooler drains Prevent water from standing in the drain. Street gutter or catch basins Keep litter and garden debris out of the gutter.
Do not overwater the yard.
Cesspool or septic tanks Seal and cover it so mosquitoes cannot lay eggs in it. Roof gutters Clean them once a year to remove debris. Irrigated lawns or fields Avoid overirrigation.
Drain standing water.
Modified from the original source: UC Pest Management Guidelines: http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn7451.html
How mosquitoes affect people and animals
Mosquitoes can affect people and animals directly or indirectly.
Direct effects: Mosquito species that feed on blood can annoy people, birds, mammals and other vertebrates.
They disrupt outdoor work and recreational activities. If there are enough mosquitoes in an area, they can cause severe blood loss and slow the growth of livestock. When they feed, mosquitoes inject salivary fluids into
their hosts. These fluids contain chemicals that can prevent blood from clotting and break down red blood cells.
The bites often cause mild allergic reactions such as swelling and itching. These reactions may continue to
affect the hosts long after the female mosquitoes have taken their blood meals. Although some people may
react more strongly to the bites, severe reactions are uncommon.
Indirect effects: Mosquitoes indirectly affect people and animals when they transmit disease organisms to them. Each year worldwide, mosquitoes affect millions of people by transmitting the disease-causing agent (pathogen) of several serious diseases, including encephalitis, dengue, yellow fever, malaria and filariasis.
Although most of these diseases were once common in the United States, none causes serious human problems
in the United States today. The most common of these diseases now in Texas is encephalitis, which affects
a few people each year.
Mosquito-borne diseases can become a problem when these four living elements are present:
- Pathogen — the organism that causes the disease
- Reservoir — the animals in which the pathogen lives and which serve as the source of the
pathogen for the mosquitoes that transmit it
- Susceptible hosts — the people and/or other animals that can be infected by the pathogen
- Vectors — the mosquito species that can transmit the pathogen, either mechanically or biologically,
from it reservoirs to the susceptible hosts
All four of these living elements must be present for a mosquito-borne disease to continue to occur and cycle
in a geographic location.
Encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain caused by certain viruses transmitted by mosquitoes. Human
cases of encephalitis range from unapparent or mild cases to very severe illnesses that can permanently damage
the central nervous system or, in some instances, cause death. Symptoms include high fever, convulsions, delirium and other central nervous system problems. If these symptoms occur, seek medical assistance quickly.
Birds serve as the primary reservoirs for the viruses that most often cause the disease. Encephalitis occasionally
becomes a problem when it is transmitted to humans, horses or other equines such as donkeys or mules.
Public health officials often check local and migrating bird populations to see if they have the virus and whether there is a potential for its transmission to humans and animals. Several types of encephalitis cause concern in Texas: eastern equine encephalitis (EEE), western equine encephalitis (WEE) and St. Louis encephalitis (SLE). The viruses causing EEE, WEE or SLE are normally transmitted from bird to mosquito to bird and sometimes from
bird to mosquito to human. EEE and WEE can also be transmitted from bird to mosquito to horse. When the
incidence of any encephalitis virus increases in bird populations, it becomes more likely that humans and
equines can become involved.
In most cases, the human or equine host is a “deadend host” for the virus, meaning that the disease probably will not be transmitted from these hosts because they cannot infect mosquitoes.
Similarly, horses may have mild to severe or even fatal infections with EEE or WEE viruses. Horses with the SLE virus show no outward sign of infection.
Birds may die of infection caused by some encephalitis viruses but not by others. For example, deaths from the EEE virus have been reported in red-winged blackbirds, house sparrows, pheasants and emus. SLE virus, however, produces no outward sign of infection in birds.
The various types of viruses are transmitted by different mosquito species:
EEE virus: Culiseta melanura, a mosquito that breeds in freshwater swamps, is typically involved in the bird
to mosquito to bird cycle of the eastern equine encephalitis virus.
Because this mosquito rarely bites humans or horses, other mosquitoes, such as the eastern salt marsh mosquito, Ochlerotatus (=Aedes) sollicitans, probably transmit EEE virus to humans and horses.
WEE virus: Culex tarsalis and Ochlerotatus (=Aedes) dorsalis are the main mosquito vectors for western
equine encephalitis virus, particularly west of the Mississippi River. Other insects, such as the swallow bug (Cimicidae), may also serve as overwintering hosts of the WEE virus.
SLE virus: Members of the Culex pipiens complex, Cx. p. pipiens (the northern house mosquito) and Cx. p.
quinquefasciatus (the southern house mosquito), are the main urban vectors of the St. Louis encephalitis virus,
with the latter species causing concern in Texas.
Culex tarsalis is the chief vector of SLE virus in rural areas of the western United States. Culex nigripalpus has been identified as the primary vector of SLE virus in Florida and is a potential vector in Texas.
VEE and CE viruses: The Venezuelan equine encephalitis (VEE) virus complex and the California encephalitis (CE) virus complex also have been recorded in Texas. These virus complexes can cause encephalitis
in humans and sometimes in horses. They differ from the other mosquito-borne encephalitis viruses in that
their reservoirs are small mammals such as rodents rather than birds, and in the case of VEE sometimes
horses serve as reservoirs.
The dark rice field mosquito, Psorophora columbiae, is the only mosquito that has been confirmed to transmit
VEE from horse-to-mosquito-to-horse in the epidemic cycle in Texas. The tree-hole mosquito, Ochlerotatus (=
Aedes) triseriatus, is the primary vector of CE, and tree squirrels serve as the primary reservoirs. The La Crosse
type of California encephalitis is the strain that occurs most often in humans, but only a few cases have been
confirmed in Texas.
WNV virus: West Nile virus (WNV) is a relatively recent concern in the eastern United States and continues
to spread toward Texas. It threatens birds (both wild and domestic), horses and people. Wild birds are the primary
reservoirs of this disease, and the pathogen can move with migratory birds.
WNV can also be spread by mosquitoes to horses and humans, causing encephalitis that may result in death.
Although about 40 percent of horses that contract encephalitis die, the disease is much less severe in
humans. There is no evidence that it can be spread from human to mosquito to human or from animals to
humans through direct contact with infected individuals.
Since 1999, WNV has been detected in 12 states and the District of Columbia — from as far north as Vermont
down to Florida along the east coast and as far west as Wisconsin in the upper midwestern states and Louisiana
in the south central states.
During the summer of 2000, the Texas Department of Health (TDH) cooperated with several agencies and
research groups in an intense national monitoring survey for WNV. The department monitored the possible reservoirs, incidental hosts and mosquito species likely to feed on birds migrating from the northeastern United
States through Texas to the Gulf Coast.
As of 2001, the mosquito vectors of WNV had been reported in Texas, but no human, veterinary or wild bird
cases of WNV had yet been reported here.
Another virus-caused disease transmitted by mosquitoes is dengue, or breakbone fever. The more serious
manifestations of this disease are called dengue hemorrhagic fever and dengue shock syndrome. It is transmitted
from infected humans to susceptible humans by mosquitoes.
A dengue outbreak occurred in Texas in 1999, with 62 cases reported to the TDH, including one death. Dengue
is usually a severe but nonfatal disease. Symptoms include the sudden onset of high fever, severe headache,
backache, joint pains and a rash that appears on the third or fourth day of illness.
In Texas, the mosquito primarily responsible for transmitting dengue to people is Aedes aegypti. Mosquitoes
obtain dengue virus from the blood of infected humans during the period from the day before the initial fever
occurs in the person through the third or fourth day of illness.
The virus then multiplies in the mosquito and invades the mosquito’s salivary glands, making the mosquito
infective to humans from 8 to 14 days after taking the infective blood meal. The mosquito then may remain
infective for the rest of its life and able to transmit the disease during any subsequent blood feedings it takes on
Historically, yellow fever is one of the most feared epidemic diseases in the United States because the
mortality rate in humans can reach 85 percent. Although the last case originating in the United States occurred in
1911, it is still regarded as so dangerous that U.S. law requires that cases of yellow fever be reported immediately.
The symptoms are high fever, internal bleeding and jaundice. Illness from yellow fever may be acute and fatal, or so mild that it is unapparent. In the classical “urban type” of yellow fever, epidemics are the result of human to mosquito to human transmission of the virus by Aedes aegypti, the yellow fever mosquito. The virus is introduced into the blood stream via the saliva of the mosquito as it bites.
An extremely slight infection risk exists for tourists who visit countries where yellow fever exists. To enter
many of those countries, visitors must take a highly effective and well-tolerated vaccine. Occasionally people
who have contracted the yellow fever in other countries return to the United States infected with the virus.
Although by the early 1950s, malaria had disappeared as a significant problem in the United States, it is still
one of the most important communicable diseases affecting people worldwide.
Malaria in humans is an acute or chronic disease caused by any one of four species of microscopic protozoan
parasites belonging to the genus Plasmodium. Malaria infections in people vary from a moderately
severe to a highly fatal illness, depending on the species of Plasmodium involved and the condition of the human
at the time of infection.
Malaria causes fever and flu-like symptoms that may include chills, headache, muscle aches and fatigue.
Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea may also occur. The parasites are transmitted from human to mosquito
to human by the bite of Anopheles mosquitoes.
Although at least 16 species of Anopheles occur in theUnited States, only two species are known to be significant vectors of malaria: Anopheles freeborni and Anopheles quadrimaculatus.
In the blood in humans, these parasites invade individual red blood cells eventually destroying these cells
and reproducing asexually. The parasites leave these cells and invade new red blood cells as the blood-cycling
phase progresses. If insufficiently treated, a malaria infection may persist in a human for many months or
even years. During that time it can be continuously or or periodically able to infect mosquitoes.
People in areas where malaria is common may be infected repeatedly, which can result in them developing
a “tolerance” for the parasite. Although this “tolerance” may prevent severe acute consequences, it does not prevent
a chronic, often debilitating infection.
Another common mosquito-borne disease in Texas is heartworm in dogs, particularly in the humid areas of
East Texas and the Coastal Plain. Mosquitoes rarely cause death directly, but they can do so by a combination of effects, including exhaustion, suffocation, toxemia and blood loss.
Dog heartworm is caused by a mosquito-borne filarial worm, a threadlike parasite called Dirofilaria immitis.
Adult stages of this worm amass in the heart cavities of dogs and cats, causing heart damage, blockages and
eventually death if the infestation grows too large.
Heartworm can cause severe circulatory problems in dogs and produce symptoms such as coughing, labored
breathing and general loss of vitality in advanced stages. D. immitis is normally transmitted from dog to mosquito
to dog. We do not know definitely what the mosquito vectors of dog heartworm are in Texas, but several
mosquito species are suspected from the genera Culex, Aedes, Ochlerotatus, and Anopheles. Mosquitoes can also transmit D. immitis to people, where the parasite usually migrates to the lungs and less often to the heart. It causes a condition known as eosinophilia. Some people also have allergic reactions to the filarial worms. Fortunately, human cases of D. immitis are rare.
Dog heartworm is fairly widespread in the United States, with the greatest prevalence being along the
Atlantic and Gulf Coasts from Massachusetts to Texas and up the Mississippi River Valley inland to as far
north as Minnesota.
Mosquito control is important for pet owners. Because it is very difficult to protect dogs from mosquitoes, the
most effective way to control heartworm is to prevent the worms from reaching the adult stage. Veterinarians
can prescribe drug treatment to protect pets during the mosquito season.
If you are concerned about symptoms that you have be sure to contact your physician. The current information
on human diseases is tracked by the Center for Disease Control. Your veterinarian is the local contact to
recommend management of pet and animal related diseases.
For more information on insect management, visit our Web site at http://insects.tamu.edu
Thanks to Doug Stevenson, who provided a manual that served as a basis for much of this information. Photos and figures were supplied by Jefferson Parish Mosquito Control, LA; Ruth Allen, Rutgers; and the Centers for Disease Control.
The information given herein is for educational purposes only. Reference to commercial products or trade names is made with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement by the Cooperative Extension Service is implied.
Educational programs of Texas Cooperative Extension are open to all people without regard to race, color, sex, disability, religion, age or national origin.
Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension Work in Agriculture and Home Economics, Acts of Congress of May 8, 1914, as amended, and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the United States Department of Agriculture. Chester P. Fehlis, Deputy Director, Texas Cooperative Extension, The Texas A&M University System.