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Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Entomology Today, a project of the Entomological Society of America with the goal of reporting interesting discoveries in the world of insect science and news from various entomological societies. To learn more, visit www.entomologytoday.org.

A neighborhood watch generally keeps an eye out for potential burglars and vandals, reporting them to law enforcement when spotted. But if you want to improve safety and health in a neighborhood, it may be wise to keep an eye out for small pockets of water that collect in discarded food containers, recycling bins and garden planters. These water sources attract unwelcome visitors that can make neighborhoods less healthy places.

In research published in the Journal of Medical Entomology, a team led by Eliza Little, Ph.D., of Columbia University, examines how socio-economic, ecological and climatic factors interact to drive populations of the Asian tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus) in an urban environment. Their project is part of the Baltimore Ecosystem Study at the Cary Institute and is supported by the Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems Program of the National Institutes of Health.

KEY SPECIES. Ae. albopictus thrives in temperate climates and is widely distributed in the eastern and central United States as well as parts of the Southwest. The species is adept at taking advantage of human-altered environments, and humans are its preferred targets.

The Aedes albopictus mosquito is widespread in the Eastern, Central and Southwest United States, as of 2016.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Ae. albopictus is a particularly maddening mosquito because it is active and bites during the day when people generally spend the most time outdoors. More importantly, Ae. albopictus may be a vector for viruses including dengue, chikungunya, Zika and West Nile.

This species is also difficult to control. Because it is active during the day, night- time insecticide treatments that are used to control other mosquito species are ineffective in controlling Ae. albopictus. Likewise, reduction or treatment of standing water is also less effective on this species because it is a container-breeding mosquito. Ae. albopictus can breed in tiny pockets of water that may collect in natural cavities and man-made containers like rain gutters and discarded food packaging. Elim- inating these man-made pockets of water is extremely difficult.

Scientists have a pretty good idea of where to find mosquitoes on larger spatial scales such as counties or towns. But habitat suitability for Ae. albopictus varies at a much finer scale than that, and control efforts need to happen at this same fine scale. So, Little and colleagues looked at field-collected data on containers (potential mosquito-breeding sites), infrastructure, vegetation, precipitation, and abundance of larval and adult Ae. albopictus across five neighborhoods of varying socio-economic status in West Baltimore. Their aim was to determine what factors best pinpoint city blocks with large populations of Ae. albopictus.

KEY VARIABLES. The researchers found that the three most important variables determining where Ae. albopictus hotspots would occur were precipitation, number of abandoned buildings and vegetation. The more abandoned buildings on a block, the more likely it was to also have semi-permanent dumping grounds and an abundance of litter. These blocks were also less likely to have regular garbage collection. Trash provides an abundance of containers that can collect water and serve as Ae. albopictus breeding sites, so these blocks had high populations of Ae. albopictus when conditions were wet. If abundant vegetation also was present, these areas could become hotspots for the shade-loving Ae. albopictus. But, when precipitation was low, blocks with fewer abandoned buildings and higher socio-economic status had higher populations of Ae. albopictus than did blocks with more abandoned buildings. The researchers believe this is because these areas receive artificial precipitation from sprinkler systems and other sources, so they are less dependent on actual rain to create pockets of water. While these areas had less trash, other types of “functional” or “structural” containers were present. Functional containers included items like watering cans and recycling bins that are stored outdoors and can collect water. Structural containers are permanent features like bird baths and planters. As far as controlling Ae. albopictus, Little says reducing breeding sites is critical, but how these are reduced may vary according to the socio-economic status of a given neighborhood.  For instance, Little notes that “cleaning up trash in lower socio-economic status neighborhoods may provide the greatest reduction of mosquitoes.” But in higher socio-economic status neighborhoods, the focus needs to be on structural and functional containers. In these areas, “informing residents as to the potential consequences of supplemental watering without reducing water-holding containers could be an important com-ponent,” says Little. This research also has important implications for urban greening initiatives. Increasing shade and greenery makes urban neighborhoods more pleasant for their human residents but also for mosquitoes. Little warns that “increasing vegetation without decreasing immature development habitat (containers) may lead to a local increase in mosquitoes.” Understanding how mosquito habitat varies on a fine scale will help professionals achieve more effective control and reduce the spread of mosquito-borne diseases. It also will help residents make their neighbor- hoods healthy places to enjoy. Meredith Swett Walker is a former avian endocrinologist who now studies the development and behavior of two juvenile humans in the high desert of western Colorado. When she is not handling her research subjects, she writes about science and nature. You can read her work on www.magpie scicomm.com.