Ouch! The floodwaters that followed Hurricane Florence, which made landfall in North Carolina on September 14, have spawned thousands of mega-mosquitoes across the state, according to entomologists.
These giants have zebra-striped legs and are two to three times as big as the normal bloodsuckers encountered during summer, said Michael H. Reiskind, an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology at North Carolina State University. "Definitely noticeably bigger," he said. "If you see mosquitoes often, then you're going to say, 'Wow, that's a big mosquito.' "
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The good news is that this species, called Psorophora ciliata by scientists but commonly known as "gallinippers," are not likely to make anyone sick, Reiskind said. "They can carry dog heartworm, but in general, they don't actually carry human diseases."
"That being said, being bitten by a giant mosquito or being bitten hundreds of times by a giant mosquito can be, in and of itself, a public health issue," he said. Some people also have more severe reactions to bites. "It can be truly disturbing. I have an 8-year-old son who reacts really badly to mosquito bites."
Reiskind explained that whether mosquito bites are painful or lasting varies between people for such reasons as individual immune system responses and previous experience with a mosquito species. In the case of the gallinippers, though, "big mosquito, big proboscis -- that's the mouth part that bites," he said. "It's a painful bite."
The species is native throughout the eastern United States, all the way up to southern Ontario, according to Reiskind. "In general, they're pretty rare, I would say, under normal circumstances. But when you get hurricanes, you get such a large boom in the population from the flood that suddenly, everybody notices them."
The species breeds more when there's more standing water, and generally, they prefer "grassy areas that flood, so that could be agricultural fields, wet meadows, marshes," said Reiskind, who believes that the species has "probably adapted to these periods of time when you have massive flooding on the landscape."
In most years, the females will produce lots of eggs, but most of those will die. "But they can withstand drying out really well, so when it does flood, the eggs are out there waiting to hatch," he said.
Scientists are waiting to see what happens if North Carolina get hits by another hurricane, Reiskind said. It could be that all the eggs laid as a result of Hurricane Florence will hatch and the state will have twice the problem it has now, or the eggs may not until after winter, which is not uncommon in a lot of insects.
"We really don't know what will happen," he said. "This species have not been well-studied in this situation."
There are close to 4,000 species of mosquitoes in the world and at least 61 species in North Carolina alone, and each is slightly different, so there's a lot that remains unknown about these bloodsucking pests.
What is known is that last month, Gov. Roy Cooper ordered $4 million to fund mosquito control efforts.
Reiskind said that funding is "important" because often, after an initial wave of giant mosquitoes, a second wave occurs of other mosquitoes: "The kind we worry about more for the transmission of human disease," including West Nile virus. "They often come out after that initial wave, so right now, essentially.
"If Hurricane Michael hits us again really hard, I don't know what that is going to do."
Hurricane Michael is forecast to bring tropical winds and rain to North Carolina on Thursday. That's why we need entomologists, he said. "It's not important till something happens, and then suddenly, it's like, 'We need to know this stuff!' "
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