Bug Zappers: Ineffective & Bad For Biodiversity?

Dear EarthTalk: Is it OK for the environment to use an electric bug zapper to keep the mosquitoes at bay in summer?                          

—Beth L., Medford, MA

While electric bug zappers do kill some adult mosquitoes, at what cost to ecosystems? Credit: David Keyzer, FlickrCC.

With summer comes, many of us seek solutions to combat the nuisance and potential health risks of mosquitoes. Electric bug zappers have gained in popularity, but while these little electrocution stations do kill some adult mosquitoes, many wonder what costs they may bring to ecosystems in general.

Electric bug zappers attract mosquitoes and other flying insects using ultraviolet light. Upon contact, they are electrocuted. By eliminating these pests, bug zappers help mitigate the risk of mosquito-borne illnesses like malaria, dengue fever and West Nile virus, while of course minimizing mosquito bites. Bug zappers do not rely on harmful toxins, offering a chemical-free approach to mosquito control. This is particularly significant where children, pets and beneficial insects like bees and butterflies are present.

That brings up the dark sides of electric bug zappers. For one, they can disrupt local ecosystems by indiscriminately killing various insect species, including beneficial ones. Aside from bees and butterflies, beetles and other insects that play vital roles in pollination and local ecological balance, also get destroyed, leading to overall negative consequences for plant reproduction and biodiversity.

Another drawback to electric bug zappers is that they need electricity to operate continuously. Depending on the model and usage, they can consume a significant amount of energy, thus contributing to climate change and environmental degradation if it is derived from non-renewable sources like coal or natural gas. If powered by renewable energy, such as solar or wind, their environmental impact can be mitigated.

Another downside of bug zappers is their effectiveness. Studies have shown that they aren’t highly effective in controlling mosquitoes. While they may attract and kill some adult mosquitoes, they do not address the root cause of mosquito infestations: breeding grounds. Mosquitoes primarily breed in stagnant water, thus eliminating these sources remains crucial for effective control. Relying solely on bug zappers may provide a false sense of security while neglecting essential preventive measures.

That said, adopting an integrated approach to mosquito control is essential. This includes eliminating standing water, using mosquito repellents and wearing protective clothing. By combining these measures, individuals can reduce their reliance on bug zappers while effectively managing mosquito populations.

Yet another way to marshal nature in keeping mosquitoes at bay is to use natural predators such as bats, dragonflies and birds to aid in mosquito control. Creating habitats that attract these beneficial species, such as water features for dragonflies or installing bat boxes, can provide long-term, sustainable solutions.

Don’t have the time or wherewithal to invest in such holistic long-term solutions? Then smear on bug repellent or buy so-called mosquito control gear to keep an outdoor area the size of a typical deck or patio mosquito-free are options. Consider Thermacell’s E90 Rechargeable Mosquito Repellent which runs off a rechargeable battery and can keep bugs away from small outdoor spaces as long as the wind is minimal.


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