Scientists ask the public to help find mosquitoes in Scotland

We’re used to seeing the humble midge around the Scottish countryside, but now scientists are asking people in Scotland to be on the lookout for mosquitoes, as new research shows they can be found in many locations across the country.

Mosquito Scotland - a collaborative project between the University of Glasgow, the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research (CVR), the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) and the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH) - has established a surveillance project across the country, and has been collecting data on Scottish mosquitoes for a year. Now, the project is launching a new "citizen science" website to encourage members of the public to report when and where they spot these insects in Scotland: https://www.mosquito-sco­tland.com/

The Mosquito Scotland project - a three-year programme which was awarded a £1.25m grant from UK Research & Innovation and DEFRA in 2023 - is the first to assess the risk of mosquito-borne pathogen emergence in Scotland under current and future climate change scenarios. The project aims to find out which mosquito species are present in Scotland, where they are found, whether they are harbouring any diseases currently or if they could become infected by pathogens that may expand into the UK with climate change.

So far, researchers have found mosquitoes in almost every place they looked in the last year, covering the length and breadth of Scotland. Efforts to find and trap mosquitoes across Scotland are being led by Dr Georgia Kirby and PhD Scholar Meshach Lee in the University’s School of Biodiversity, One Health and Veterinary Medicine. Throughout the last year they have collected more than 1,000 mosquitoes across Scotland, in a range of locations, from parks in urban Glasgow to nature reserves on the northern coast of the country.

Now, the project’s new citizen science website has instructions on how the public can join the search by registering a mosquito sighting and uploading a photo, with tips on how to recognise these insects, and information on their ecology. People can request a follow-up from the research team about the type of mosquito they have found (if a good quality photograph is submitted), or send dead mosquitoes for identification.

The information will be used to understand how common some mosquitoes are across the country, and which types are most likely to be found around people. It will also help researchers understand whether mosquitoes are a source of ’nuisance biting’ in Scotland, and to generate baseline information for longer-term monitoring of how mosquitoes respond to climate change.

While most people know that mosquitoes are found in tropical climates, they also exist at higher latitudes, including within the Arctic circle. They are resident throughout the UK, and can be found in colder, more remote parts of Scotland, where they are most active from May to October, in a number of outdoor settings, including parks, natural areas, gardens and even inside houses.

Although mosquitoes can sometimes be confused with other better known biting insects such as midges and "clegs" (horseflies), they can be distinguished from these two groups based on size: being bigger than midges, and smaller than horseflies; and other characteristics, such as the high-pitched whining noise the adults make while flying.

Heather Ferguson, Professor of Infectious Disease Ecology at the University of Glasgow, who leads the project, said: "Although relatively low in abundance, mosquitoes have been present in Scotland for millennia, and are a natural part of our ecosystems. While they don’t present a risk to human health here currently, climate change could increase the risk of invasive mosquito species establishing in Scotland. It may also increase the risk for mosquito-borne diseases that are present in some other European countries to establish.

"By sharing information on when and where they observe mosquitoes, members of the public can make a very valuable contribution to this research and help us anticipate and prepare for any potentially negative impacts of climate change on mosquito-borne diseases".

While mosquitoes do not currently pose a risk to public health in Scotland, they are already able to transmit diseases to birds in other parts of the UK. Birds in both wild populations and zoos (e.g. penguins) have been significantly affected by mosquito-borne pathogens such as Usutu Virus and avian malaria in England, and our research will help assess if similar threats are present in Scotland.

Dr Emilie Pondeville, Senior Research Fellow at MRC-University of Glasgow CVR, who co-leads the project, said: "While currently mosquitoes in Scotland do not pose a direct threat to human health, it is crucial to investigate whether local mosquito populations can harbour and transmit diseases that impact both animals and humans.

"Understanding how temperature influences this dynamic is paramount, especially in the context of global warming. By conducting such assessments, we can gauge the potential future risk posed by mosquito-borne diseases, and this will enable the implementation of proactive measures to mitigate any emerging threats."

The project brings together a multidisciplinary team encompassing expertise in mosquito ecology, vector surveillance, avian ecology, mosquito-transmitted pathogens and ecological and epidemiological modelling.

Throughout the project, researchers will be conducting surveillance of mosquitoes and screening migratory birds across Scotland for the presence of emerging zoonotic pathogens, including West Nile and Usutu viruses; and results will be used to model the risk of pathogen introduction and transmission.