How do mosquitoes zero in on their prey? A group of UK scientists is itching to solve the mystery—and they're starting by snapping thousands of photographs of the airborne pests.

Engineers and entomologists from the University of Warwick and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (both located in the UK) are using high-resolution cameras and infrared lighting to study how the small flies interact with mosquito netting. The effort is a part of a European research initiative fighting malaria in Africa called the AvecNet Project. 

In the journal Scientific Reports, the researchers reported tracking Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes, one species in the only genus known to carry malaria, in a simulated bedroom environment. Volunteers in Tanzania lay in beds, hung with different types of mosquito netting, for an hour, serving as live bait for the bloodsuckers.

During the experiment, two different cameras took 50 images per second of the room. The high-res images, about 4 million pixels each, were so large that University of Warwick analysts had to develop new software just to process the data. 

The mosquito-watching setup designed by the researchers. Image Credit: Parker et al., Scientific Reports (2015)

The researchers found that 75 percent of all mosquito activity happened at the roof of the protective nets, directly above the person in bed. And while the mosquitoes made less overall contact with insecticide-treated nets than the untreated nets, they were not immediately repelled by the treated mesh. After 30 minutes of trying to reach the human inside the barrier, the insects’ activity subsided. But it was unclear whether the insecticide shields actually killed any mosquitoes or merely drove them to different hunting grounds.

Up next: The scientists plan to continue sifting through the images for more answers on netting that will prevent the spread of malaria.