Hatched, armed and ready to bite

Southern Britain is enduring a temporary epidemic of mosquitoes, of which there are 32 species in the country, thanks to hot weather preceded by weeks of rain.

Anti-mosquito remedies are "walking out of the shops", as people struggle with the discomfort and sleepless nights they are causing.

Peter Jones in London and branches of Milletts outdoor supplies shops said yesterday that anti-mosquito measures were leaving the shelves as fast as they were stocking them.

Nigel Hill, medical entomologist from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said the conditions this year had been "absolutely ideal" for mosquitoes to breed.

He had recently been to Epping Forest in Essex, one of the worst-hit areas, to search for the anopheles plumious mosquito - a strain that has been known to carry malaria. Normally it would take weeks to find two or three in a tree, he said. This week he found 60. "The wet weather that preceded this hot spell is the root of the increase," Mr Hill explained.

Dr Ralph Harbach of the Natural History Museum, said that breeding sites for the country's 32 species have increased significantly because of the rainfall.

The areas worst hit are the marshlands of Essex and Kent, and anywhere where warm climates co-exist with stagnant or slow-moving water, enabling the mosquitoes to breed. In the Middle Ages, malaria-carrying mosquitoes were common in eastern England, particularly in those two counties.

But for those currently plagued by itching, swollen bites, Tim Stanley, project manager of a team working on anti-malarial drugs at Glaxo Wellcome has some consolation: mosquitoes only live for 20-30 days, and changing weather conditions are unlikely to prolong their life cycles far enough for the biting to continue much beyond next month.

"Any increase in the numbers of mosquitoes is purely a temporary one. You'd need these sorts of temperatures for long periods for them to really be growing sustainably," he said.

"The beauty here is that they're just a pest, rather than a threat. We do get the occasional malarial case, but they're not likely to happen as a matter of course."

Mr Stanley advises those with ponds to check the surface for scum - actually mosquito eggs - and scrape it off, in order to minimise the prospect of being bitten.

Alternative remedies include smoking, or cultivating cheesy feet, both of which are apparently mosquito turn-offs. But there is little point moving northwards. According to Nigel Hill, midges, their equally irritating relatives have been the "bane of the Scottish Tourist Board for years".

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