Uncle Sam wants YOU... to track Zika mosquitoes

A female Aedes aegypti mosquito acquiring a blood meal from a human host at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

AP Photo/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/James Gathany

The mosquitoes that can spread the Zika virus are already buzzing among us. The U.S. government could use some help figuring out exactly where.

"We don't have a lot of data -- good, solid data," said John-Paul Mutebi, an entomologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

With government budgets tight, there's little money to track its spread, so officials are hoping the Invasive Mosquito Project will help. No experience is necessary for what the U.S. Department of Agriculture envisions as a nationwide experiment in citizen-science.

The Zika virus has been linked to serious birth defects and health officials are preparing for the possibility of small outbreaks in the United States.

What the USDA is proposing is the kind of population survey not seen in the continental United States since World War II, when the country fought the spread of mosquito-borne viruses by encouraging school kids and scout troops to do their part in keeping their neighborhoods free from dengue and yellow fever.

The Invasive Mosquito Project is recruiting volunteers -- including school students and science teachers -- to collect mosquito eggs in their communities and upload the data to populate an online map. The aim is to provide real-time information about hot spots to help researchers and mosquito controllers respond.

The project's web site says, "This citizen science project provides students, teachers, and anyone interested the opportunity to collect real data and contribute to a national mosquito species distribution study."

Currently, CDC researchers' national maps only roughly show the possible spread of two disease-carrying mosquitoes. Those maps are based on historical reports, recent research and surveys sent in February to mosquito control districts nationwide, but evidence remains thin for habitat estimates.

Officials suspect that the Aedes aegypti mosquito could carry Zika well beyond the Southeast during the summer, and the more cold-hardy Asian tiger mosquito could be biting into the Midwest and Northeast. Both species are capable of spreading Zika, but experts have considered the Asian tiger less of a threat for triggering outbreaks than the Aedes aegypti.

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CDC

The Invasive Mosquito Project is coordinated by Kansas-based USDA entomologist Lee Cohnstaedt, who has explored crowd sourcing as a budget-conscious way to sample mosquito populations. Cohnstaedt cites research that shows volunteers are capable of collecting large-scale data. Now he's pinning his hopes for data collection on students - hoping for participation from a fifth of U.S. schools. Scout troops and gardening clubs could contribute, too, making mosquito surveys as common as public bird counts for conservation groups.

Since high school biology teacher Noah Busch incorporated the USDA project into his lesson plans, his students in Manhattan, Kansas, have made the connection between news reports about Zika and the mosquito traps they set near tires or backyard swimming pools.

"I had more parents afraid of this project than any of my students," said Busch, who teaches protocols for avoiding bites. "The parents were thinking we were attracting mosquitoes. No, the mosquitoes are already there."

The equipment is nothing more than brown paper towels and dark-colored plastic party cups. Students insert the paper into the cups, fill the cups two-thirds of the way with water and place the cups around their homes. After about a week, they dry the towels and examine them for eggs, which look like tiny specks of dirt.

Classes verify their findings with the USDA, local researchers or mosquito control officials before uploading their results to the project's website, which is part of a new central database for all federal citizen science activities.

In the past, Cohnstaedt could spend $150 or more a night to send one employee to trap mosquitoes. Crowd sourcing that effort has "saved a bunch" of money and "collected better data than we could have working alone," he said in an email.

The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District wants the USDA project in three high schools this fall. The island chain could offer early warnings about invasions by Asian tiger mosquitoes or other species.

"Having these collections on different islands will alert us to any additional places where it's trying to expand," said executive director Michael Doyle.

You can learn more or participate in the Invasive Mosquito Project on its website.