Is the mosquito menace growing in the UK?

Mosquito sucking blood

Complaints of mosquito bites are on the rise in the UK. So should Britons brace themselves for a future mosquito menace?

Hovering perfectly at ear level with a lingering, bothersome whine, mosquitoes leave you with bites that lead to itchy, swollen welts.

In much of the world, affected by malaria, repelling them is a matter of life and death. In the UK they are a mere annoyance, interrupting summer holidays and barbecues.

Based on a survey of UK local authorities, reports of mosquito bites over the last 10 years are 2.5 times greater than in the 10 years up to 1996.

NHS Direct statistics show 9,061 calls in England complaining of bites and stings from early May this year to now - up nearly 15% from last summer. Not all bite complaints are due to mosquitoes - many can be attributed to bedbugs, midges and fleas.

But conditions in the UK, particularly in southeastern England, are increasingly hospitable to mosquitoes.

"The wet weather through May and June this year, along with a warm summer, has affected the population because mosquitoes like the standing breeding water," says zoologist Michael Bonsall at Oxford University.

It's difficult to track mosquito numbers accurately, but the UK authorities are trying to do so.

Mosquito snapshot

  • Culex pipiens is the most common mosquito in Britain
  • Only females bite humans, males feed off nectar
  • Bites often occur at dawn and dusk, when mosquitoes' internal clocks tell them it's feeding time
  • A quarter of British species do not bite humans but feed on animals and birds
  • Anopheles mosquitoes are the only known carriers of malaria
  • Red bumps and itching caused by bites is an allergic reaction to the mosquito's saliva

The Health Protection Agency has organised the Mosquito Recording Scheme to look into where and how mosquitoes live and breed.

And the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, with help from the HPA, has created Mosquito Watch, a voluntary reporting system geared towards collecting and analysing various specimens.

Not only do mosquitoes swarm over pools of standing water, including bowls left outside for pets, they appear under man-hole covers and even travel on London's Tube network.

But while mosquitoes transmit deadly diseases in many parts of the world, they do not cause major harm in the UK.

They may spoil picnics in the park, but they are usually only a major problem when Britons travel to countries with malaria, dengue or other mosquito-borne diseases.

But once upon a time, malaria-carrying mosquitoes could be found in the salt marshes of southeastern England.

It is believed that malaria - literally "bad air" - dates back at least to Roman times in the UK, and outbreaks occurred as recently as the years just following World War I.

British doctor Ronald Ross, who discovered the malarial parasite living in the gastrointestinal tract of the Anopheles mosquito in the 19th Century, recruited teams to eliminate the larvae from stagnant pools and marshes.

Black-and-white striped Asian tiger mosquito bites a human The Asian tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus) has been spotted as close as Belgium

Malaria in England had effectively died out by the 1950s, mostly due to the draining of much of the marshland where mosquitoes bred.

But because of the growth of global travel, the number of imported cases of the disease in the UK has risen, with nearly 2,000 a year today.

In many cases, live mosquitoes have been found on aircraft, or travelling in luggage, having been transported from countries with malaria.

On rare occasions, people may even have contracted malaria in Europe and North America, dubbed "airport malaria".

Five of the 30-plus species of mosquito found in the UK are not native. One variety is coming alarmingly close to the UK. The Asian tiger mosquito - Aedes albopictus - known for its white and black striped pattern has been spotted as close as Belgium.

Start Quote

It is possible that Aedes albopictus [Asian tiger mosquito] could make its way to the UK”

End Quote Dr James Logan Medical entomologist

While the species does not carry malaria, it does transmit West Nile virus, Yellow fever and dengue.

"It is possible that Aedes albopictus could make its way to the UK," says Dr James Logan, medical entomologist at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

"Because they lay their drought-resistant eggs in transportable materials, like used tyres, there is a possibility that they can be transported to a country where they are not normally found.

"Some studies suggest that they could survive the UK winter, however, to date this species has not been found in the UK and the HPA are keeping a watchful eye on it."

Bonsall agrees and adds that predictive models show how malaria-carrying species could even make their way to areas such as the North Kent marshes, Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk.

Mosquitoes are becoming immune to the insecticides used to treat them - via spray or bed nets, according to a recent study from Senegal. Between 2007 and 2010, insects with a resistance to a popular type of pesticide rose from 8% to 48%.

"This could be a big problem for future control," says Dr Hilary Ranson, head of the vector group at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.

But according to Dr Logan, the health infrastructure and access to drugs in the UK means malaria is unlikely to take hold and cause major problems.

Unlike much of the world, the rise of the mosquito will be a nuisance in the UK rather than a serious threat.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    Although the problem has been getting considerably worse lately, mosquitoes have been a problem on Hayling island, Hampshire, for over 20 years. With the growth of long haul holidays, i sometimes wonder how good the insecticidal procedures are on holiday jets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    If you have been bitten in the daytime, chances are it was not a mosquito, but a midge. These swarm in much greater numbers, and are a horrendous problem in Scandanavia in the summer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    @ 156. Cariboo

    (often on my eye making me look like I've been punched), while they ignore him - sadistic little things ! : )
    When I was posted to Malaya it seemed that the people who drank lots of beer did not get bitten that often. So be like your boyfriend, down a pint or two.
    Hey thanks, that is the best excuse to drink more beer ever. I'm going to use that. Let's hope it works.

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    Twice I have seen mosquitoes in my garden (SE) that closely resemble the Asian Tiger mosquito. They had striking white bands on black legs, and white dots along the body. Question is, does our bird population carry the viruses that the ATM can pass on to humans?

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    Maybe we need mosquito cull?

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    I don't begrudge the mosquitoes a bit of my blood. But why do they have to thank us by giving us nasty poison which causes horrible bumps and itches - and can leave a scar? Can any entomologist explain what's in it for the species, to poison us?

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    The role of the Local Councils should be enhanced in enhancing public health and safety. Do they ever visit a house to check the breeding grounds for mosquitos in the backyard of houses. I have seen dozens of backyard gardens neglected, and full of mosquitos in London. My house is next to a park, and I can't open the windows.

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    To call nhs, due to a mosquito bite, is a total waste of resources, and many will need to be fined, as wasting nhs money. I only hope the bbc has not assisted this an any way, which from I am aware you have, by aiding complaints of nhs. Why? they live and depend on stagnant water, and marshland, why south east? well it's warmer than many parts of the highlands.

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.

    I have no idea if the "mosquito menace" is growing. I do know anti social behaviour is growing though

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    I also forgot to mention if you have Dragonflies flying around leave them alone as they eat mosquitos 24/7. Here in Edmonton when walking to work I can usually have a few following me as they know that mosquitos will be looking for a bloodsucking lunch from me..LOL.
    Dragonflies have now become to 1.2 million Edmontonians out here in the Canadian west as our official friendly civic insect!

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    As a Canadian living in Edmonton, Alberta we have had a dreadful mosquito season this summer. Winnipeg, Manitoba is usually the mosquito capital of Canada but with us having a wet summer and they have had a hot and dry one we have been swamped by the critters. Wear light coloured clothing and aviod perfume or cologne this attracts them. Also empty any standing water nearby as they breed in this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    122 And_here_we_go_again

    (often on my eye making me look like I've been punched), while they ignore him - sadistic little things ! : )
    When I was posted to Malaya it seemed that the people who drank lots of beer did not get bitten that often. So be like your boyfriend, down a pint or two. Or use mosquito repellant (also boyfriend repellant, it stinks) . Burn mosquito coils.

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    I'm sure they are growing bigger, they were much smaller when I was a child. lol

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    I think ainw people call midge bites mosquito bites because it sounds more exciting.

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    I think people just complain more now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    Some folks say ....
    "temperate zones in unseasonably hot weather "
    "In England, the increase is caused by global warming"
    Hot weather ?
    unseasonably hot weather ???
    Really ? I hadn't noticed

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    Other than living here now in Minnesota (where the national bird is the mosquito) I thought Brouge, Belgium was the worst place for mosquitoes.
    Maybe it's due to their rather smelly canals! Just remember mosquitoes love standing water; Large or small amounts and will keep breeding all season. As kids we used to call the lumps and bumps 'heat bumps'! We thought the sun caused them!!! DAH!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    While doing biological field work in northern Ontario at the height of the mosquito season, my colleagues and I invented a game called 'The Swat Quotient'. The goal was to kill as many mosquitoes as possible with one swat. Our record was 85.

    And in Britain people complain about being bitten once or twice. Sheesh!

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    In England, the increase is caused by global warming

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    I live in the South East and there has definitely been an increase, not necessarily in the number, but in the size of mosquitoes we get. The larger ones are vicious (you can feel them biting) and the bites swell up to hard lumps about 4cm across. The swelling only goes down after several days' application of antihistamine cream. Best to avoid the garden at dusk, and check the bedroom at night.


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