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The Inventivity Pod
A Simple Mosquito Water Trap
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For most people, mosquitoes are very unwelcome.  They can also carry dangerous diseases like the zika virus and malaria.   Dr. Roberto Perreira has invented a simple mosquito water trap that doesn’t contain pesticides.  Born and raised in Brazil, Pereira had no interest in insects as a kid.  He went into entomology “through the back door” in graduate school by focusing on diseases that kill insects.  Naturally he was drawn to swampy Florida where he specializes in “urban entomology.”   

 

TRANSCRIPT:

 

Intro:

Inventors and their inventions. Welcome to Radio Cade, a podcast from the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention in Gainesville, Florida. The museum is named after James Robert Cade who invented Gatorade in 1965. My name is Richard Miles. We’ll introduce you to inventors and the things that motivate them. We’ll learn about their personal stories, how their inventions work, and how their ideas get from the laboratory to the marketplace.

Richard Miles:

Getting rid of mosquitoes, we can put a man on the moon, but we can’t get those damn bugs from biting our legs. Help may be on the way. My guest today is Dr. Roberto Perreira a research scientist in urban entomology who has developed simple mosquito traps for which I at least would spend a lot of money on. So welcome, Dr. Perreira

Dr. Roberto Perreira:

Thank you.

Richard Miles:

So let’s start by having you explain exactly how these traps work. A mosquito trap. What do you do with it and how does it work?

Dr. Roberto Perreira:

Well, the mosquitoes that we’re targeting here are what we call container breeding mosquitoes. So they are used to breeding tree holes but in the urban areas they just look for any container of water to lay their eggs. So the females are looking for these containers to lay their eggs. So what we have is just a bottle, is a dark bottle and it will have some water in the bottom so it will attract the female mosquitoes and we are talking about the 80s mosquitoes, that ones that are transmitting Zika and other diseases and because we treat this bottle internally with the pesticide, the female mosquitoes will end up dying. If by any chance some mosquito eggs get laid inside that bottle, we also have a second pesticide that targets the larvae and they don’t allow the larvae to develop into adults. It’s a simple item.

Richard Miles:

Is there anything in the water itself in the bottle that attracts them or is it just simply water? We actually put like a tea bag that has some ground leaves inside that tea bag and that basically conditions the water gives a little smell that it makes it more attractive for the mosquitoes. The bottle is a dark container and it has water. So that’s exactly what these mosquitoes are looking for.

Dr. Roberto Perreira:

And if you had a small yard or medium sized yard, how many of these would you have to put around your yard? Well, we always recommend not putting less than two. It doesn’t matter how small your yard is, but actually a normal yard, uh, say in Gainesville would probably want to have three or four or five of these containers around just so that you offer enough competition in relation to whatever other containers or water containers are there in that yard.

Richard Miles:

And so based on how you’ve described this, I’m guessing is the advantage here that you don’t have to do any spraying of the yard with a pesticide that presumably goes all over the place. Is that kind of the advantage here?

Dr. Roberto Perreira:

Exactly. The idea is that you can prevent a large scale application of pesticide by just not breading the mosquitoes there. The problem with these mosquitoes is that they can find very small containers of water. These mosquitoes can actually breed in a cap full of water, like the one that on a water bottle. So even a turned leaf will actually allow these mosquitoes to breed.

Richard Miles:

There doesn’t have to be a big bucket or anything. It’d be just a very small…

Dr. Roberto Perreira:

Very, very small tablespoon full of water will allow these mosquitoes to breed. So it’s impossible to eliminate every single container that would allow these mosquitoes to breed. So what you want to do is provide some competition for these things and attract the mosquitoes to these containers, these traps and kill them there.

Richard Miles:

Okay. So I think I understand the technology and how it works. And this is obviously not the only technology that you’ve worked on with relationship to insects and bugs. This is kind of your career here, but before we talk about the academic side and your additional research, tell me a little bit about your personal story. You’re from Brazil. Did you grow up there? When did you move to the United States? Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Dr. Roberto Perreira:

I was born in Brazil. But as a kid, I moved to Brasilia, which is the capital of Brazil in the central part of Brazil. Lived there for a number of years and eventually we moved to São Paulo city, which is the biggest city in South America. So I’ve been an urban person for quite some time. I couldn’t say that I was really interested in insects at all as a kid. I had other things to find, I guess. And uh, eventually I went to college in agriculture. So it was an agricultural college and I started working originally in the genetics department, but then I found a job in the entomology department and I start working there. So that’s how I got involved in bugs, I guess. I always say that I went into entomology through the back door because I wasn’t really working with the bugs themselves. I was working with a professor that works with diseases of insects and the idea is to use these diseases to kill insects that you don’t want. So it’s an area that’s called insect pathology.

Richard Miles:

So, let me make sure I have this correct. So it’s not diseases and insects carry, it’s diseases that actually affect the insects themselves.

Dr. Roberto Perreira:

Yes, exactly. So it’s called insect pathology because you’re causing a disease among these insects. And actually, uh, people are fairly familiar with some of these. There is the product BT Bacillus Thuringiensis, that’s a bacteria that will kill a lot of caterpillars most people may have used in the garden, the product called Dipel, which is one of these pathogens that will kill insects. So my initial career was actually working this area of insect pathology and microbial control of insects. And that’s what brought me to Florida eventually. Before I came to Florida, I actually did my master’s degree in Cornell University up in New York. It’s a bit too cold for a Brazilian up there.

Richard Miles:

And not enough mosquitoes. You had to come to the mosquito capital of the world.

Dr. Roberto Perreira:

And at the time I wasn’t working with mosquitos at all. But anyway, I came to Florida to actually work with another one of these fun insects, the fire ant. So we had a project here at the University of Florida that we were using a fungus to kill fire ants.

Richard Miles:

Interesting. Let me ask, did either one of your parents, were they research scientists at all or how did you get involved in the research feel?

Dr. Roberto Perreira:

My father was a college professor, more a college instructor, but that was his second job. His first job was as a bureaucrat in the Brazilian government. That’s why we ended up in Brasilia, because when the capital changed from Rio to Brasilia, he went over there. He always taught either high school or college or a university courses as a second job.

Richard Miles:

What was his subject, what did he teach?

Dr. Roberto Perreira:

Mathematics and statistics, so nothing to do with what I do nowadays, but the idea of science and higher learning was always present.

Richard Miles:

Now you’ve done a lot of research on other types of insects and developed other technologies. You mentioned the fire ant. When you go to work in the morning, you’re obviously not just focused on mosquitoes or fire ants. Tell us a little bit about some of that other research. What are some of your findings and are there any other interventions out there that you think have some sort of market potentially?

Dr. Roberto Perreira:

Yes. I work in a lab that’s called Urban Entomology lab. So Urban Entomology is preoccupied, is worrying about the insects that we find in our urban environment and those are insects that people usually don’t like to have around them. So in our lab for instance, we have 17 different species of cockroaches that we rear and we do tests on them. We also have 12 or so different species of ants that we are rearing in the lab.

Richard Miles:

Are these cockroaches and ants native to Florida or are they from all over?

Dr. Roberto Perreira:

Most of these are not native to Florida. As you may know, most of the pests that we have are not native. The native insects usually get overwhelmed by the presence of these exotic species that come over and become pests. So most of the cockroaches, for instance, that we consider to be pests, including the American cockroach, the American cockroach is not American.

Richard Miles:

What a disappointment.

Dr. Roberto Perreira:

The German cockroaches are another species of cockroaches that we have, especially in college towns like Gainesville, you’ll have a lot of student housing, maybe places that don’t get as clean as possible most of the time. So you do have a lot of cockroaches that occur in these types of residences. But during a variety of bugs we work with. Another one is the bedbug. You’ve probably have heard about the bed bugs, they’re blood sucking insects that may occur in residents, hotels, all those areas. We have colonies in the lab too that we keep them and try to find ways to control them.

Richard Miles:

So you studied these bugs or insects that are in primarily cities or urban areas. It’s a primary objective to figure out how to get rid of them. Or are there other research goals that you have just to figure out how they what? Reproduce, or what else is involved?

Dr. Roberto Perreira:

Yeah, we do a variety of research. Um, the ultimate goal is usually get rid of insects we don’t like and maybe increase the number of insects that we like. That’s basically as simple as that. So we may do some research, for instance, on killing cockroaches, on ants using pesticides, chemicals, but we may also look at their behavior and try to find other ways to get rid of them or limit the ablation because of their behavior or something else. For instance, for bedbugs, we had a student that worked with what colors bed bugs are attracted to and we can say, well, what is important in that type of research? And basically if you can find something that is very attractive to these bugs in terms of color or odor or something else, you can trap them. You can get rid of them from the environment.

Richard Miles:

Are there any surprising facts about cockroaches that your average person doesn’t know that have surprised you or that we should know about? Do they have a secret life that we need to be aware of?

Dr. Roberto Perreira:

I think every insect probably has a secret life that we don’t know much about. Most of these insects, including the ones that we considered to be very nasty and not very nice to have around, do have a function in nature. So the only reason they are pests is because we probably created conditions for them to be bothering us when we accumulate garbage and things like that, that brings cockroaches, also brings rats and other things, but we created those conditions for that. So it’s important for people to understand that what we considered insect pests, they were just another species with a niche out there in nature and we built our houses and our cities around those things or we brought them from another country into this country and then they become a pest.

Richard Miles:

Right.

Dr. Roberto Perreira:

They wouldn’t be a pest if humans were not around.

Richard Miles:

Right. Exactly. Let’s go back to the mosquito trap now. You’re taking this to market right there. This is a commercial invention. Tell me a little bit about that process. Has it been difficult? Is it easy? What are some of the challenges from a business perspective in trying to market a technology like this?

Dr. Roberto Perreira:

Oh, our approach is never for us to take it to market. So the university has the technology hub and the people that work with finding buyers for these technology and they do a tremendous job. So we have a partner, a company, and the head of that company is a guy from Italy that found us somehow got interested, acquired the technology from the university and is now trying to make that a commercial product. Because he’s not a very large company if things don’t work overnight, he has to find funding and has to sell the technology to potential investors and so on and so forth. So it has taken time to get to the right condition. We think, or he thinks that he has a large partner now to actually use these traps and in accounts all over the world. And if that really happens, then you’ll have the technology taking hold into commercial arena and being used. As you probably know, most of the patents that college professors and others come up with never get to be a commercial product. So it’s rare that these things actually happen. I always give the example that I probably have now 18 or 20 patents or something in that neighborhood and not a single product that people are actually buying.

Richard Miles:

Is there anything else like this on the market already in terms of a simple trap that doesn’t involve spraying pesticides?

Dr. Roberto Perreira:

There are traps in the market, some of them are being sold in Walmarts and other places like that. They get used, but they don’t get used in large enough scale. So hopefully we can come up with something that’s more efficient that’s really needed and that is really going to help the public in general. Once we deliver this technology to a company, we kind of lose a little bit of the control over what is really going to happen with the technology and their adjustments that need to be made sometimes in terms of marketability and costs and this and that. So it’s like you’ll see your daughter grow up and somebody else takes over there and you lose control. So this is a similar thing.

Richard Miles:

You kind of have to sort of bless and release, almost watch it go. Yeah.

Dr. Roberto Perreira:

Yeah. As academics, we really don’t understand what the market needs, what the market is able to afford, and all of this. And sometimes we have this of an ideal product that is not something that the market can accept.

Richard Miles:

Right, right. Dr. Perreira, thank you very much for being on the show today. I feel like I learned a lot about mosquitoes and bugs and urban entomology. I wish you all the success in the development of this trap and hope we can have you back for an update.

Dr. Roberto Perreira:

Okay. Thank you.

Outro:

Radio Cade would like to thank the following people for their help and support. Liz Gist of the Cade Museum for coordinating and inventor interviews. Bob McPeak of Heartwood Soundstage in downtown Gainesville, Florida for recording, editing and production of the podcasts and music theme. Tracy Columns for the composition and performance of the Radio Cade theme song featuring violinist, Jacob Lawson. And special thanks to the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention located in Gainesville, Florida.

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