MAYVILLE, N.D. – Mayville State University biologist Joseph Mehus has no qualms about probing into mosquito research.
The biology professor and MSU Division of Science and Mathematics chairman is leading a study delving into mosquito biology and ecology in Traill County, N.D. The research project, funded by a grant of about $75,000 from the North Dakota IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence, includes identifying mosquito species and determining what kind of host they preyed upon before they were captured.
“I love mosquitoes,” said Mehus, noting the insects play an important role in the ecosystem, providing food for other creatures including frogs, bats, fish and his other favorite insect, dragonflies.
“If we eliminated mosquitoes, we could, potentially, be disrupting the ecosystem,” Mehus said.
Meanwhile, with an educational background in parasitology and disease transmission, he finds mosquito research fascinating.
In the past two months, Mehus and the research team of three biology students he leads — Laura Jacobson, of Finley; Lily Pyle, of Casselton, and Taylor Painter, of West Fargo — have collected about 15 mosquito species at four locations across Traill County. A similar study Mehus previously conducted in neighboring Steele County identified about 25 species, he said.
There are about 200 mosquito species in the United States and more than 3,000 in the world, according to Mehus.
"Mosquitoes are like birds; not every bird is the same. A robin is not the same as a blue heron, which is not the same as a robin, which is not the same as a pelican, which is not the same as a barn swallow,” Mehus said.
“You would never imagine calling a mosquito pretty, but here we are,” Pyle said. “Some of them are a really shiny silver, some have circles on the back, others have really cool banding.”
Each morning Pyle, Jacobson and Painter, wearing bug spray and dressed from head to toe in protective gear, collect the mosquitoes from about 30 traps, which are at a farmstead, in a shelterbelt, in Mayville and in a riparian area outside of the city.
When the research project began, 20 mosquitoes were caught in the traps. Now, that number has ballooned to 5,000. The researchers have identified about 150,000 of the mosquitoes they’ve trapped.
“It’s mind blowing to think how many mosquitoes are out there,” Mehus said.
The students transfer the captured mosquitoes from the traps to bags, which they take to Mehus’ MSU laboratory where they freeze the insects.
Throughout the process, the mosquitoes are handled carefully.
“You don’t want to have a smushed one that you crushed after it bit you,” Mehus said.
The next step of the research project will be to dissect the mosquitoes which contain blood, and determine what kind of host on which they’ve preyed.
“Kind of like 'CSI' on a mosquito,” Mehus said, referring to a popular television show in which characters do forensic work. Depending on the mosquito species, the insects choose as their hosts, mammals, birds, amphibians or reptiles. Some species, meanwhile, feed on both birds and mammals.
The latter, called “opportunistic feeders” can transmit diseases from animals and birds to humans, Mehus said.
The culex tarsalis, which carries West Nile virus, is one of those. The peak season for the insect typically is from late July through August.
But if someone is bitten by a mosquito during the culex tarsalis' peak season, it isn’t a certainty that person will contract West Nile, Mehus said.
“Not all species transmit all pathogens,” he said. “That mosquito might not have West Nile.”
Though Mehus is a mosquito aficionado at work, he doesn’t have mercy on them in his private life.
“I still have the tendency to swat at them,” he said. "But I do look at them first, to see who they are.”