Thursday, July 25, 2013


My morning bike commute started out pretty quietly. As the sun rose higher, a few vociferous birds broke the stillness, singing their exuberant morning songs: “I’m alive! I made it through the night! This is still my territory! I love you dear! I’m alive!”

Slowly, another sound penetrated my pedaling meditation – the squeak of a dry chain. I pulled over on to the grassy shoulder of my rural town road to get out the chain lube. As my tire hit the grass, a cloud of mosquitoes rose with a hum. This sound was worse by far than the squeaking of the chain.

A leisurely maintenance stop quickly morphed into a NASCAR-style pit stop as I raced to finish. The annoying insects flew behind my sunglasses and landed on every warm surface. Almost more annoying than their bites or their humming was the soft breeze as their wings brushed against my skin. I slapped a few, their bodies crushing easily. Mary Oliver, my favorite poet, writes – The mosquito is so small; it takes almost nothing to ruin it.

Within a few seconds, I leapt back on my bike and took off like a shot, as if chased by the devil himself. I sighed in relief as my soundscape returned to the morning birdsongs, the stiff breeze in my face, and the hum of my tires on the road.

“Oh the mosquitoes, aren’t they just awful this year?” On the street and in the office, mosquitoes are the hot topic. They have almost replaced the weather as our default conversation, except that the weather often determines when the bugs are at their worst, so it cannot be ignored completely. We all have horror stories, and love to share. What’s yours?

Inevitably, someone asks, “What good are mosquitoes anyway?”

The negative aspects of mosquitoes are easy to list: they leave itchy welts, create sleep-depriving noise, and are disease vectors for malaria, yellow fever, and dengue fever, to name just a few. In Alaska, mosquitoes form swarms thick enough to asphyxiate caribou. But we in the Northwoods are luckier. According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, few mosquitoes actually carry West Nile virus, and less than one percent of people infected with WNV become seriously ill.

However, of the 3,500 named species of mosquito, only a couple of hundred bite or bother humans. "Mosquitoes have been on Earth for more than 100 million years," says mosquito researcher, Jittawadee Murphy, "and they have co-evolved with so many species along the way." How many, how many, how many make up a world! writes Mary Oliver.

Mosquito adults are food for an astounding variety of birds, insects, spiders, salamanders, lizards, and frogs. From northern Canada to Russia, there is a brief annual period in which mosquitoes are extraordinarily abundant. Bruce Harrison, an entomologist at the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources estimates that the number of migratory birds that nest in the tundra could drop by more than 50% if all mosquitoes miraculously disappeared.

While we don’t have quite the mosquito or the bird population that the Arctic does, the warblers, vireos, flycatchers, swallows, and other summer birds that serenaded me to work eat a fair number of the pesky insects.

Dragonflies also do their best to reduce the number of mosquitoes for us. They are natural enemies of mosquitoes in all their stages of growth. The aquatic nymphs of dragonflies eat the aquatic larvae of mosquitoes, as do plenty of fish. Dragonfly adults swoop acrobatically, catching mosquitoes in their basket-like legs, and eating their own weight in mosquito burgers every 30 minutes. Mosquito biomass magically becomes a swarm of shimmering dragonflies. And then I think of that old idea: the singular and the eternal… (muses Mary Oliver).

If you have a hard time “becoming one” with the mosquitoes, there are a few things you can do to make yourself a less appealing blood meal. Mosquitoes are attracted to carbon dioxide, heat, lactic acid, smells in your sweat, sweet fruity or floral scents, and dark colors. So relax quietly in light-colored clothing, don’t breathe heavily, and use unscented bath products. Unfortunately, our genetics make up about 85% of our susceptibility to mosquito bites, so you might just be doomed to itching, while your friend is unaffected.

To further deter mosquitos, keep a fan blowing on you (mosquitoes are weak fliers), cover up your scent with a natural bug repellent like citronella or lemon eucalyptus, and avoid their active periods at dawn and dusk. DEET is the longest lasting effective mosquito repellent, but it is caustic to plastic and other synthetic materials, so use it wisely.

Mosquitoes have their own chemical defenses. A female mosquito’s saliva (since only they and not males eat blood) contains compounds that deter vascular constriction, blood clotting, and platelet aggregation, and are being researched as treatments for cardiovascular disease. Perhaps that may someday absolve them in our hearts.

And, if a hungry female mosquito still manages to break through your defenses, catch up to your frantic pedaling, and suck some blood, take comfort in knowing that it connects you to the wonderful web of nature…How tiny and redeemable everything is, even you…(Mary Oliver, One)

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