Skrillex May Play an Unexpected Role in Mosquito Control This Summer

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Skrillex isn’t as popular as he was in 2010, but dubstep is making a comeback — this time as a bug repellent. Playing the Skrillex song “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” reduces mosquito biting and mating, said a team of Malaysian scientists who subjected mosquitoes to the title track from his Grammy Award-winning EP on Monday.

Publishing their study in Acta Tropica, they point out that the Skrillex banger had its deterrent effect on Aedes aegypti, a species of mosquito best known as a vector for diseases like yellow fever, Zika virus, dengue fever, and chikungunya.

“To our knowledge, this is the first study to test the impacts of music, which is unique to humans, on the behaviors of a dengue vector,” write the researchers, led by Hamady Dieng, Ph.D., an entomology researcher at the University of Malaysia, Sarawak. The team’s results suggest that the unique sounds of Skrillex’s music are much more effective at warding off mosquitoes than conventional sonic mosquito repelling devices.

yellow fever mosquito
Aedes aegypti is also known as the yellow fever mosquito.

An Anti-Appetizer and Anti-Aphrodisiac

To test Skrillex’s effect on mosquito behavior, they put a restrained hamster into a wire mesh container with mosquitoes (10 females and one male), either with or without music on. Then, they tracked the mosquito behaviors for 10 minutes.

When the music was off, the females (males don’t drink blood) responded to the hamster’s presence in an average of 35.22 seconds. When the music was on, it took them much longer — 131.3 seconds — to notice the hamster. Similarly, the timing of a mosquito’s first bite increased from 82.44 seconds without music to 191.7 seconds with the music on.

Even though the mosquitoes eventually fed on the hamster regardless of whether the music was on or off, they visited the hamster 11.72 times when the music was off and only seven times when the music was on.

Skrillex’s music seemed to make the biggest difference when it came to mosquito mating. It seems that his music is the opposite of an aphrodisiac for mosquitos: The number of “copulation” events in a ten-minute period decreased from a no-music average of more than five to less than one when the music was on.

Blame It on the Bass

Based on the team’s results, you might conclude that Skrillex (or any similarly noisy EDM) could be a backyard barbecue savior. The key to Skrillex’s mosquito-repelling ability, they write, is the song’s noisiness: a quality that includes strong pressure and vibration, along with constantly rising pitches.

While cranking up some dubstep at a party might clear humans from the dance floor, however, the results of other studies examining the effects of sound on mosquito activity aren’t as promising.

A 2007 Cochrane Library review of electronic mosquito repellent devices examined 10 different studies that tested whether electronic mosquito repellents (EMRs) reduced mosquito bites. EMRs had “no effect on preventing mosquito bites,” concluded the review’s authors. “Therefore there is no justification for marketing them to prevent malaria infection.”

Research on electronic mosquito repellers suggest they're not very effective. Maybe they should play dubstep, instead.
Research on electronic mosquito repellers suggest they're not very effective. Maybe they should play dubstep, instead.

Other studies have shown mixed results. A 2010 paper in the Journal of Vector Ecology showed that mosquitoes bit as much as 50 percent more when EMRs were turned on — not exactly a ringing endorsement. A 2013 study in Acta Tropica, meanwhile, showed that the effect of EMR devices was the same as having no device at all.

But Skrillex seems to have one major advantage over typical EMRs: bass.

In many cases, EMRs emanate sounds with frequencies around 10 kHz, a fairly high frequency. But as shown in the spectrum analysis of “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” below, the song blasts below 440 Hz, which could interfere with mosquitoes’ ability to find each other. Below, the yellow, red, and purple bars show a near-constant mix of high and low sound frequencies.

Sound is an important part of mosquito life: The frequency of sound that they produce with their beating wings, for example, helps them identify one another as male or female. Ae. aegypti happens to produce sounds between 400 and 600 Hz — a range that some of the frequencies in Skrillex’s song fall into.

The study authors point out previous research showing that environmental noises, like those produced by traffic, can also reduce the foraging efficiency and mating success of insect predators, so perhaps Skrillex is just an extremely effective form of mosquito birth control.

There’s a lot left to discover about the relationship between mosquito activity and noise, but the study results support future experimentation. This summer, if someone breaks out an acoustic guitar and attempts “Hotel California” at an outdoor get-together, science supports your choice to turn on a Bluetooth speaker and crank “Purple Lamborghini” instead.

Abstract: Sound and its reception are crucial for reproduction, survival, and population maintenance of many animals. In insects, low-frequency vibrations facilitate sexual interactions, whereas noise disrupts the perception of signals from conspecifics and hosts. Despite evidence that mosquitoes respond to sound frequencies beyond fundamental ranges, including songs, and that males and females need to struggle to harmonize their flight tones, the behavioral impacts of music as control targets remain unexplored. In this study, we examined the effects of electronic music (Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites by Skrillex) on foraging, host attack, and sexual activities of the dengue vector Aedes aegypti. Adults were presented with two sound environments (music-off or music-on). Discrepancies in visitation, blood feeding, and copulation patterns were compared between environments with and without music. Ae. aegypti females maintained in the music-off environment initiated host visits earlier than those in the music-on environment. They visited the host significantly less often in the music-on than the music-off condition. Females exposed to music attacked hosts much later than their non-exposed peers. The occurrence of blood feeding activity was lower when music was being played. Adults exposed to music copulated far less often than their counterparts kept in an environment where there was no music. In addition to providing insight into the auditory sensitivity of Ae. aegypti to sound, our results indicated the vulnerability of its key vectorial capacity traits to electronic music. The observation that such music can delay host attack, reduce blood feeding, and disrupt mating provides new avenues for the development of music-based personal protective and control measures against Aedes- borne diseases.