Posted 5 Aug
Words by Sarah Keenihan.
Mosquitoes love to hang out in your back yard. After all, you’ve set it up perfectly for them: plenty of shady plants for shelter, plus water in the dog bowl and bird bath to lay eggs in. And of course, regular access to human blood for feeding.
Ouch! Slap! Yep, they’re annoying for sure. Worse than that – some kinds of mozzies can spread serious diseases like Ross River Fever and dengue virus (and even malaria in our warmer neighbouring countries). That’s why public health experts keep track of mosquitos.
But sending in professionals to count bugs across the suburbs is an expensive and time-consuming business. PhD candidate Larissa Braz Sousa and her colleagues are exploring another option: a program called Mozzie Monitors.
“Mozzie Monitors is a citizen science mosquito surveillance program,” Larissa said.
“Researchers and communities work together to collect mosquitoes and identify the species.”
Larissa is a postgraduate student at UniSA Clinical and Health Sciences. She previously completed her undergraduate and master’s degrees at Sao Paulo State University, Brazil.
Citizen scientists reporting for duty
People who sign up to participate in Mozzie Monitors are provided with a trap to set in their backyard.
“The trap is made up of two buckets, one of which contains water, and with a net between them,” Larissa explains.
“The female mosquitoes try to access the water to lay eggs, but they become trapped in the net.”
After several days of hanging the trap in their backyard, the citizen scientists simply collect all the stuck mosquitoes, take a photograph on a high-contrast laminated card and email it to the professional scientists.
“Even using a mobile phone, the photographs are good enough for us to identify the mosquito species,” Larissa said.
“We call this e-entomology.”
Watching mosquitoes across Australia
Larissa has published results of her world-first trial of Mozzie Monitors plus e-entomology, which she conducted across 126 backyards in South Australia. The citizen scientists sent in photos of more than 10,000 mosquitoes, and the whole thing cost only one fifth of a comparable professional surveillance program.
“Now we’re about to start a much larger trial of Mozzie Monitors,” Larissa said.
“This will involve citizen scientists collecting mosquitoes in South Australia, Western Australia, New South Wales, Queensland, mainland Northern Territory and the Torres Straight Islands.”
Larissa said the point of the new trials is to collect enough data so Mozzie Monitors can be confidently rolled out as a long-term mosquito surveillance program more broadly across Australia.
“If we can quickly see that certain species of mosquitoes are starting to be around more often, we can be ready in case diseases break out,” said Larissa
Australia has hundreds of different types of mosquitoes, but only two – scientific names Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus – can spread dengue, for example. If there’s a sudden rise in this type of mosquitos, cases of dengue may increase.
Other mozzie species carry different diseases.
“We’ve already seen in our trial that people are able to collect mozzies species that spread Ross River Fever,” Larissa said.
Dengue and Ross River Fever are caused by viruses transmitted by the bites of infected mosquitoes.
Learning by doing
Larissa is interested not just in the mosquito data, but also the citizen scientists. Who are they, and what do they get out of being involved in Mozzie Monitors?
Her analysis so far shows the people who sign up have a mix of motivations and interests.
“Most people are in their 50s or 60s, and more women than men,” Larissa said.
“While some have a background in science, more often they are just interested in citizen science or in volunteering in general.”
Whatever the reason for being involved, volunteers do pick up some science along the way.
“People start to pay attention to mosquito behaviour, they start looking for the ‘wriggler’ mosquito larvae around their house, they notice what kind of weather makes mosquitoes more likely,” Larissa said.
“It’s such a hands-on approach, we find people learn a lot.”
Larissa hopes the citizen scientists also take their learning to the next step, and actually change their behaviours in terms of controlling mosquitoes in their own backyards.
“If people are able to learn and change behaviours, and tell others what they’re doing, I think in the long term we will see a decrease in mosquito-borne diseases in Australia,” Larissa said.
Check out Mozzie Monitors on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/mozziemonitorsproject), twitter (https://twitter.com/MozzieMonitors) and Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/mozziemonitors/), and the official website (mozziemonitors.com).