Mosquitoes are not only very annoying insects to deal with, but they can even be dangerous to our health. However, despite all that mosquitoes are also very interesting and fascinating little creatures, if only you get to know them closely enough.
Which is why we chatted with Dr. Cameron Webb, mosquito researcher, Principal Hospital Scientist in Medical Entomology at NSW Health Pathology and Clinical Lecturer at the University of Sydney about everything from his interest in mosquitoes and work researching and surveilling them, to how to best repel mozzies and keep them away from us.
Karen Thompson from InsectCop: How did you get into entomology and more particularly mosquito surveillance and research?
Dr. Cameron Webb: I trained as an environmental scientist and my early projects investigated the ecological role of ants in coastal sand dunes and the implications for dune rehabilitation projects. This led to a scholarship to study the mosquitoes associated with a major urban redevelopment project in Sydney ahead of the 2000 Olympics. Studying mosquitoes is a great way to balance both an interest in ecology but also promote improved public health outcomes for the community.
Karen: You do quite a lot of fieldwork when it comes to mosquito surveillance. Tell us a bit more about what that entails!
Dr. Cameron Webb: The mosquito surveillance I do is for a number of purposes. I collect both adult and immature mosquitoes at a number of sites with the data collected informing mosquito control programs and public health awareness programs coordinated by local and state health authorities. I use carbon dioxide-baited light traps to monitor adult mosquito populations, as well as using the abundance and diversity of mosquitoes to make an assessment on local nuisance-biting pest threats, the mosquitoes can be tested for the presence of mosquito-borne pathogens, particularly Ross River virus, as part of the NSW Arbovirus Surveillance and Mosquito Monitoring Program. In addition, I investigate mosquito populations associated with constructed and rehabilitated urban wetlands to assess how these habitats can best be managed to minimize public health risks.
Karen: Part of your expertise is laboratory assessments of mosquito repellents. Can you share which repellents have you found to be the most efficient against mosquitoes?
Dr. Cameron Webb: Despite the hundreds of tests I’ve conducted over the years, I think the gold standard for mosquito repellents remain DEET and Picaridin. This backs up the work of colleagues from around the world. I think the science is settled when it comes to topical insect repellents, we don’t really need new active ingredients, what health authorities need to do is provided better advice to the community to ensure they choose and use the currently available repellents in a safe and effective way.
Karen: You have developed mosquito management plans for multiple different areas. What are your key mosquito management and control tips?
Dr. Cameron Webb: The most important thing is to know your pest! Mosquitoes are a diverse range of insects and unless you know the local pest species, their activity patterns, and habitat associations, it will be difficult to control populations in a cost-effective way and with minimal non-target impacts. Ensuring there is a good monitoring program in place, it can inform decisions on what, when and where mosquito control products can be applied, and assess how effective they are!
Karen: In your opinion, what are the main contributing factors to the growing mosquito population? And what can each of us do to help shrink the mosquito population in our areas?
Dr. Cameron Webb: I think there are two problems. Firstly, mosquitoes are adapting to our cities. Mosquitoes such as the Asian Tiger Mosquito and Yellow Fever Mosquito are exploiting the habitats we create around our homes. We’re also moving these mosquitoes around the world with our belongings and on our ships and airplanes. There are many parts of the world, most of Australia included, that are free of these two mosquitoes but I don’t know how much longer that will continue. Secondly, we’re trying to conserve our local environment as urbanization continues, protecting wetlands and wildlife while also conserving water in our cities, has the potential to increase mosquitoes too. We need a balance between environmental health and public health.
Karen: Mosquito-borne diseases continue to be a big issue in many regions. What are the main strategies that people should employ in order to avoid getting Malaria, Zika or any other mosquito-borne disease?
Dr. Cameron Webb: Avoiding mosquito bites as best you can and choosing a method that will be most effective in the country you’re in. Sleeping under a bed net in areas where malaria risk is high is just one approach, but where Zika virus is a problem, you need to wear insect repellent during the day when the mosquitoes that spread this virus, along with dengue and chikungunya, are active.
Karen: One of your interests is the ecological role provided by mosquitoes. Can you talk a bit more about what role mosquitoes play in the ecosystem?
Dr. Cameron Webb: We simply just don’t know how important mosquitoes are to the local ecosystem. We suspect their food for a wide range of animals including birds, bats, fish, and frogs but we don’t really know just how important they are. Mosquitoes can also pollinate plants. To date, however, science has not demonstrated that there is a plant or animal on the plant that is completely reliant on mosquitoes for survival.
Karen: What are the biggest takeaways you have gotten from researching mosquitoes for all these years?
Dr. Cameron Webb: Mosquitoes are incredibly resilient and adaptive. Whether it is evolving to exploit the habitats around our homes or in building up resistence to our commonly used insecticides, mosquitoes seem to find a way to survive and dodge our latest weapons in the battle against them! For this reason, we need to keep an open mind as to what will be the best site-specific approach to managing mosquitoes and maintain an integrated approach to reducing the risks of mosquito-borne disease.
Karen: You are a lead author on “A Guide to Mosquitoes of Australia”, which features species descriptions for around 100 mosquitoes commonly found in Australia. Which is your favorite mosquito species and why?
Dr. Cameron Webb: One of my favourites is Aedes alternans. This is a large, shaggy-looking sandy coloured mosquitoes. It will bite but we don’t think it is involved in the transmission of any mosquito-borne pathogens. It is found in a wide variety of habitats, from saltwater to freshwater and the immature stages are predatory, they eat lots of lots of other mosquito larvae – they are a kind of natural biological control method!
Karen: What is the one thing you wish everybody would know about mosquitoes?
Dr. Cameron Webb: Some mosquitoes are incredibly beautiful once you have a chance to look at them under a microscope. They have intricate patterns of delicate scales, sometimes brightly colour and sometimes iridescent. Most people wouldn’t notice, they’re too quick to squish them!
Karen: Finally, where can people find you and learn more about the work that you’re doing?
Dr. Cameron Webb: You can keep up with my research, public speaking and media appearances by keeping an eye on my various social media accounts, I’m active on Twitter @mozziebites and Facebook @mozziebites. But I also have a website that is regularly updated with my latest research and commentary on mosquito-related news items cameronwebb.wordpress.com.
So there you have it, our interview with Dr. Cameron Webb, Mosquito Researchers, NSW Health Pathology and University of Sydney. Big thanks to Cameron for chatting with us! Interview highlights down below:
- Interested in a carrier in entomology? Dr. Cameron Webb says that “studying mosquitoes is a great way to balance both an interest in ecology but also promote improved public health outcomes for the community”.
- When it comes to mosquito repellents, Dr. Webb insists that “the gold standard for mosquito repellents remain DEET and Picaridin”.
- On top of that Webb emphasizes that “what health authorities need to do is provided better advice to the community to ensure they choose and use the currently available repellents in a safe and effective way” rather than trying to come up with new mosquito repellent or killing ingredients.
- Mosquito control is important, however, Cameron Webb warns that “unless you know the local pest species, their activity patterns, and habitat associations, it will be difficult to control populations in a cost-effective way and with minimal non-target impacts”. So before you go out on a mosquito-killing spree, learn about the mozzies that are common for the area you live in!
- Dr. Cameron Webb notes that “we need a balance between environmental health and public health” if we want to shrink the ever-growing mosquito population.
- When it comes to avoiding mosquito-borne diseases Dr. Webb recommends “choosing a method that will be most effective in the country you’re in”.
- One of the things that Cameron Webb focuses his work on is the ecological role of mosquitoes, on which he maintains the position that “we simply just don’t know how important mosquitoes are to the local ecosystem”. Meaning that mosquitoes might have a much bigger part in our local ecosystems than we think.
- Thanks to his years of researching mosquitoes Dr. Cameron Webb is sure that “we need to keep an open mind as to what will be the best site-specific approach to managing mosquitoes and maintain an integrated approach to reducing the risks of mosquito-borne disease”.
- And before you squash your next mosquito, keep in mind that “some mosquitoes are incredibly beautiful once you have a chance to look at them under a microscope”.