Nearly 150,000 mosquitoes will soon begin to be released in batches in parts of the Florida Keys. Don’t worry if you live in or will be traveling to the Keys — the mosquitoes won’t bite.
In fact, releasing the mosquitoes will actually cause the mosquito population to decrease. That’s because these genetically modified non-biting male mosquitoes will mate with the local biting female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, but their female offspring won’t survive, explains Oxitec, an advanced biotechnology company that designed the modified male mosquitoes.
“An important part of Florida Keys Mosquito Control District’s mission is to protect residents in the Florida Keys from the disease-transmitting mosquito, Aedes aegypti,” Andrea Leal, executive director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, said in a statement. “We see the development of resistance to some of our current control methods, so we need new tools to combat this mosquito. And given the unique ecosystem we live in, those tools need to be safe, environmentally friendly, and targeted. That’s why we are collaborating with Oxitec.”
More Than A Simple Pest
The problem with mosquitoes is more significant than just their annoying buzzing sound, it’s that they bite. Well, some of them bite.
As you may know, male mosquitoes feed on nectar from flowers — and don’t bite humans. On the other hand, female mosquitoes do bite humans because they need a blood meal to produce and deposit eggs, a Healthline article explains.
While the mosquito bite itself may itch, the bite may also lead to the spread of disease. For example, the Aedes aegypti mosquito is responsible for transmitting diseases that include dengue, Zika, and yellow fever to humans, as well as transmitting heartworm and other potentially deadly diseases to pets.
“In the Keys, [Aedes aegypti mosquitoes] make up just about four percent of the mosquito population, but they are responsible for virtually all of the mosquito-borne disease transmission to humans,” Meredith Fensom, head of global public affairs for Oxitec, said on the Today show.
A New Breed Of Males
Project managers expect that release boxes, non-release boxes, and netted quality control boxes will soon begin to be placed in six locations: two on Cudjoe Key, one on Ramrod Key, and three on Vaca Key, Oxitec explains. Less than 12,000 mosquitoes will emerge each week — for approximately 12 weeks — for a total of 144,000 non-biting mosquitoes, the company explains.
Here’s how the science will work: The genetically modified male mosquitoes will carry a “self-limiting gene” that prevents the survival of their female offspring, Oxitec explains. After the male eggs hatch and grow to maturity, the males will eventually mate with the local female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes and pass on the modified genes — which will result in female offspring dying before they become adults.
“The males will run out of females to mate with, and that’s how you bring the Aedes aegypti population down,” Fensom said on the Today show.
But Will The Plan Work?
This isn’t the first time Oxitec has released its modified mosquitoes into the wild. The company notes that it has released the mosquitoes in other locations — and the operation doesn’t “cause harm to beneficial insects” such as butterflies or bees.
“Similar projects in the Brazilian city of Indaiatuba found that Oxitec’s mosquito suppressed the disease-carrying Aedes aegypti population by up to 95 percent in urban, dengue-prone environments following just 13 weeks of treatment.”
“While the releases represent a landmark release of Oxitec mosquitoes in the U.S., we’re focused on demonstrating the value this technology can have for Florida Keys’ residents, communities’ and business owners — while protecting the Keys’ beautiful and sensitive habitat that we all value so much.” Oxitec’s CEO, Grey Frandsen said. “With outstanding support from local residents, and with full clearance from the Federal and state regulators, it’s time to get to work.”
If the prospect of fewer mosquitos has you more excited about a Keys vacation, check out our favorite Florida Keys content here