Southern Californians are being attacked by what officials say could be a record number of blood-sucking Aedes mosquitoes, also known as "ankle biters."
"It's absolutely the worst it's ever been, and I've lived here for 25 years," said LA resident Sheila Irani, showing the I-Team mosquito bites covering her ankles and legs.
The aggressive Aedes first appeared in our region about a decade ago, but they've spread significantly in recent years.
LA County Vector Control tells NBC4 they are now on track to get a record number of calls for help from homeowners who complain they're being eaten alive by the ankle biters, which can penetrate clothing to reach their victims.
Controlling these mosquitoes is more than a nuisance - it's a major health concern.
"Right now in California, we're lucky we haven't had any serious incidents here yet. But when we look at it worldwide, these mosquitoes are the primary spreaders of Zika and Dengue Fever, very dangerous diseases," board certified entomologist Sylvia Kenmuir told NBC4.
But a Silicon Valley company called "Verily," has developed what appears to be a hugely successful method to control the Aedes mosquito, by sterilizing the male mosquitoes in a lab with a commonly found bacteria called Wolbachia, and then releasing them into neighborhoods.
"We're going to release sterile male mosquitoes, they mate with the female… and she goes about and lays her eggs just like she normally would, but when those eggs go to hatch, nothing hatches," says Brad White, a scientist working on Verily's "Debug Program."
White and other team members released sterilized males in select neighborhoods in Fresno, California.
"There were up to 99% less of these Aedes mosquitoes in the areas we released in Fresno, relative to other areas in the city where we didn't release," said White.
A team of Verily researchers also experimented with sterilized males in Australia, in collaboration the Australia's national science agency and two universities.
The researchers released three-million sterile male mosquitoes in three mosquito-infested towns in Northern Queensland Australia, again with impressive results.
"In these 3 townships, the numbers were reduced 80 to 95%," said Nigel Snoad, Verily Product Manager
California has already had success with sterilizing another species of male insect, the infamous Mediterranean Fruit Fly, which threatened to wipe out the state's agriculture crops starting in the late 1980s. In recent years, the California Department of Food and Agriculture has been releasing sterilized male medflies from airplanes, and the pest is no longer considered a major threat to the agriculture industry.
"It has been an extremely successful tool, in adding to all the other things that we can do to eliminate an insect species like the med fly, said entomologist Kenmuir.
Verily says its US partner, MosquitoMate, hopes to get a permit from the US EPA for widespread use of the sterilization technique, which they believe could happen in 2022.
"Without a doubt, if this technique is widely deployed, you'll see a large reduction in mosquito population in southern California," said Snoad.
But until the ankle biter population is under control here, experts say you have to take precautions to protect yourself from the mosquitoes.
"They love to breed indoors. If you have a sponge and it's too wet, they can actually lay eggs around there. Think about dog bowls, houseplants," said entomologist Sylvia Kenmuir.
She says be careful you don't leave even small amounts of standing water in houseplants.
"Remember, they don't need a lot of water."