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Health & Fitness

Giant skeeter hysteria builds

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Published:   |   Updated: March 24, 2013 at 08:10 AM
TAMPA -

Here’s the latest in the long history of headlines about nature gone wild in Florida: Millions upon millions of giant killer mosquitoes are massing, poised to stab humans with proboscises the size of steakhouse knives.

All it takes is a good, long ground-soaking rain to hatch the eggs, planted last summer in dirt near the edges of ponds. The culprit is Tropical Storm Debby, which dumped several inches of rain in June along Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Information in news releases predicts the onslaught of Schwarzenegger-size bugs, dubbed gallinippers.

“Gallinipper Mosquito To Descend On Florida; Giant Insect ‘Goes After People,’ Hurts When It Bites,” shouts a headline on Huffington Post last week. “It can feel like a small bird landing on you,” an expert is quoted as saying.

“One of the most ferocious insects you’ve ever heard of — it’s the size of a quarter and its painful bite has been compared to being knifed — is set to invade Florida this summer,” says another recent story on Livescience.com.

Such dispatches are a bit overblown, said Phil Kaufman, an entomologist with the University of Florida who studies six-leggers of all types.

“Don’t believe everything you read,” Kaufman said. “There is a lot of misinformation out there. These are normal mosquitoes that show up every year; some parts of the state may experience higher than normal numbers.”

It’s true, he said, that after Debby the gallinippers, known in scientific circles as Psorophora ciliate, flourished and, looking to the future, laid plenty of eggs to repopulate this summer.

But it will take a lot of rain, like from a tropical storm or hurricane, to spark a gallinipper super invasion. Females typically lay eggs in the dirt near the shores of ponds that overflow when heavy rains come.

And the gallinipper is indeed significantly larger than the typical variety of blood-sucker seen around these parts, Kaufman said.

Floodwater that stands for a week or two touches off the development of the gallinipper larvae, he said.

How many hatch depends on how much rain the region gets this summer, he said. But even if 2013 isn’t an especially wet season, the same eggs can lie dormant, waiting for flood conditions until 2014. Or later.

You may have seen the gallinipper in wet seasons past, Kaufman said. The insect has a body about half-an-inch long, with a black-and-white color pattern. As with other biting mosquitoes, only the female feasts on the blood of the living. Males prefer flower nectar.

“They are a native species which has been here longer than humans,” he said.

The bugs typically populate rural areas and aren’t often seen in urban settings. They prefer livestock, deer and just about any other mammal to humans, he said.

“Most urban areas have superb mosquito control districts that manage all mosquito populations,” Kaufman said. “Essentially, the places we notice them is in cattle pastures.”

They are not particularly aggressive, he said, and they typically do not carry diseases.

“But they bite as they encounter you. The bite is painful because it’s bigger. The itching afterward is no different than any other mosquito. They are annoying, but that’s about it.”

Hillsborough County Mosquito Control Director Carlos Fernandes laughed when told about news reports of a gallinipper invasion. Those rumors surface every year, he said, “like the one with the Africanized bees.”

“It’s the same thing with the gallinippers,” Fernandes said.

The breed is a “very boring mosquito,” he said. “The only thing that catches people’s attention is how big it is.”

A common mosquito can land on you and you won’t feel it until it’s too late to swat and the proboscis is already plunged into your skin drawing blood.

In that respect, the size of the gallinippers works against them, Fernandes said, when they try to feast on humans.

“When it lands on you, you feel it,” he said.

“It’s the difference between a Volkswagen Jetta hitting you and a Mack truck.”


kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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