Steve Schutz sat inside his steamy insectarium in Concord on a recent morning working on a crossword puzzle as about 50 mosquitoes slurped blood from his right arm.
One by one the mosquitoes wobbled off, plopping onto the ground like overinflated footballs. Finally, Schutz pulled his arm out of the small cage, snapped off the latex glove -- he prefers to protect his fingers from bites so he can type -- and rubbed down his reddened and bumpy forearm with alcohol.
"Some people think it's pretty strange," he said nonchalantly, his glasses slightly steamed with moisture. "People in the entomology field think, 'What's the big deal?' "
The mustachioed lead scientist with the Contra Costa Mosquito & Vector Control District has been bitten more than 150,000 times over the past 12 years -- all in the name of science. He feeds his "virgin mosquitoes" his own blood once a week and uses his colony as a control group to test against wild mosquitoes to see whether the wild insects are becoming pesticide-resistant.
The idea is to keep ahead of mosquito-borne diseases, primarily West Nile virus, which, in rare cases, can be fatal in humans.
About a half-hour after the feeding, the red welts covering his forearm begin to subside.
"It kind of tickles or itches a little bit, but I've been doing this for more than 10 years, and I've developed a tolerance," Schutz said. He easily resists the urge to scratch a mosquito bite, or 50, which only makes the tingling worse as you spread the itch-inducing mosquito saliva.
"Don't try this at home," he joked from inside his insectarium, with its lights programmed to remain on 16 hours a day and off eight hours to simulate a typical summer day when females produce eggs. The temperature remains a constant 75 degrees, with 70 to 90 percent humidity, steamy enough to rust most of the metal fixtures and short out the radio Schutz played for a couple of feedings.
"I grew up in Brooklyn -- it's like this all the time," said Schutz, 53.
His colleagues still marvel over the itchy operation.
"I personally could not do that because I'm allergic to mosquitoes, and I don't want to think what that would do to my arm," said Deborah Bass, the agency's spokeswoman. "Even just watching him do that gives me the heebie-jeebies."
The nature enthusiast studied entomology at Rutgers University and got a summer job at a mosquito control lab before attending UC Davis to work on mosquito-borne diseases. He has been with the Contra Costa lab 16 years. In previous labs, Schutz used live birds to feed his mosquito colonies, and other colleagues use mice or guinea pigs.
"It winds up taking more time to care for the animals than it does for the mosquito colony," he said. "I found it's less work doing it this way."
There are other options to avoid the weekly blood donations. A membrane feeder, made up of lamb skin, cow blood and circulating water, is used by other researchers, but Schutz said those mosquitoes do not get enough blood and can't breed as effectively. Dead animals do not work because blood coagulates quickly in a carcass.
So, shortly after he received a mosquito colony from a University of California lab in Bakersfield about 12 years ago, he began offering up his right arm every Friday morning, supplying the female mosquitoes with the protein they need to produce eggs.
Because his colony is captive-bred and now thousands upon thousands of generations old, Mother Nature has not selectively removed the slow feeders or not-so-nimble fliers.
"These mosquitoes are actually kind of slow, which is annoying sometimes," he said of the feedings, which typically take 30 minutes. "In the wild, many of these guys probably would have gotten swatted by now."
Instead, Schutz's spoiled Culex tarsalis -- one of two major vector carriers of West Nile virus in the state and one of 23 Contra Costa mosquito species -- flourish in his proboscis paradise. About 100 to 150 adult mosquitoes live in the cage, but only about half are female with the needle-thin snouts enabling them to suck blood. It takes a few days for the females to digest the blood before laying eggs. Each week, the colony produces upward of 1,000 eggs. They grow into larvae, pupae and then mosquitoes in trays of water in the lab's nursery. Mosquitoes not killed in pesticide testing live about two to three weeks.
"I don't have any names for them," Schutz said. "For me, it's like raising tropical fish. I wouldn't exactly call them pets."
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.
Source: Contra Costa Mosquito
& Vector Control District