Our Window on Nature

. . . exploring the world around us

Mosquito Misery

Filed under: Bugs — Lowell Christie -- June 1, 2006 @ 3:31 pm

A ranger at the entrance to Everglades National Park announced to us that he had both good and bad news to report. The bad news – about 40 species of mosquitoes live in the park. The good news – members of at least seven of these species don’t bite.

It could be worse. Worldwide some 3,000 species and subspecies of mosquitoes exist, but three-quarters of them live down in the tropics. The number of species lessens as you move northward; here in North America we total but 160 different kinds. But as you get closer to the poles, you make up for a lack of varieties by sheer numbers of mosquitoes. In early summer, hoards, clouds, swarms of these insects darken the sky across the Arctic tundra – creating an artificial twilight in the land of the midnight sun.

With all those vicious fliers, it’s a blessing that mosquito-carried diseases are no longer a threat in our neck of the woods. Whereas once malaria and yellow fever carried off more lives than were lost in all wars combined, now they’ve ceased to be a menace to us here in North America. Better control of mosquitoes, improved medical treatment, and a generally higher standard of living account for the change.

Those three factors have greatly lessened the fatalities in the rest of the world, but an incredible one million people still die each year from malaria. Experts don’t really expect to entirely eradicate the disease from the tropics, only to gradually decrease the loss of life.

In an ecological sense, it would be a poor idea to eliminate all mosquitoes even if it were possible, because they provide a ready food source for millions of birds, fish, and other aquatic life forms. And, of course, there are those mosquitoes that don’t take blood.

In fact, blood isn’t taken for food in a strict sense, but to facilitate laying large numbers of eggs. That means males don’t bite, and at some stage of their lives, neither do the females. Instead they dine on flower nectar, on the juice of fruits, and on various foodstuffs they get from standing or running water. Even after defending all those non-bloodsucking critters it still leaves an awful lot of billions of mosquitoes that like nothing so well as a bare piece of your hide, so let’s take a quick look at the apparatus that allows them to operate their flying blood bank.

The mosquito has a long, hollow stylus on the end of its “nose.” Needle sharp, and with a sawtoothed edge, the proboscis is so sharp that when it penetrates your skin you usually don’t feel a thing. She then injects a drop of her saliva, which acts as an anticoagulant to keep the blood from clotting before she can collect your donation. It’s that saliva that most people are allergic to, that causes the swelling and the terrible itch.

The blood-filled female flies off in a-few seconds, carrying two or three times her weight in red nutrient, and what a difference it makes. Now there will be enough protein to produce 75 to 500 eggs (depending upon the species) instead of the one or two eggs the mosquito would have been able to lay without that sac full of blood.

But to lay the eggs she must find water. Different mosquitoes require different types of water. Some need fresh running streams; some seek out quiet pools or stagnant puddles. The brackish waters of a salt marsh suit still others, or the waters of snowmelt high on a glacier in summer. The female lays her eggs either singly or grouped together into pearly rafts that float on the water. Now, and after the eggs hatch into larvae, or wrigglers, they are most vulnerable – to fish, water-loving birds, or other insects. But their period of vulnerability doesn’t last long. In a week the next generation is already on the wing.

Since mosquitoes have adapted to such a variety of water sources, naturally you find them in varied habitats, many of them in highly desirable places for camping, fishing, and hiking. Quiet ponds, coastal marshes, and high-country meadows, wherever you’re headed you can expect to find that mosquitoes have had it colonized long before your arrival. So what about selfdefense?

Wish we could give you a surefire method to prevent getting bitten by mosquitoes, but the truth is, there isn’t one. There are, however, several things you can do to keep yourself from being the main source of their next blood meal. First, avoid wearing scents that attract insects. That means eliminating perfumed toiletries such as hand lotion, face creams, some suntan lotions, hairsprays and deodorants. Mosquitoes have lousy eyesight, but a highly developed sense of smell. (Remember, they eat nectar and fruit juice when they aren’t after you.)

Next, wear light-colored clothing with long sleeves and pant legs. In hot weather, this is a problem because a stylus sharp enough to penetrate your skin can certainly go through lightweight clothing, and you don’t want to wear more than necessary. Then, you need insect repellent.

Scientists and sportsmen agree that the best repellents are those made almost entirely of NN diethylmetatoluamide (DEET). Up in the mosquito- and black-fly-infested north country it is now quite easy to locate repellents containing 95 to 100 percent DEET. It usually comes as a liquid and isn’t as convenient to apply as a spray or lotion. But it certainly works a whole lot better. But do be careful to keep it away from the frames of plastic glasses and binocular cases. It softens the plastic and makes a disagreeable mess.

Swimming, abrasion from clothing, and perspiration wear off the repellent, so be sure to reapply it often. You’ll know when it’s necessary – the critters will once again land on you and set up business.

There are several products available that you can use to spray the inside of your rig or to eliminate mosquitoes around your campsite so you can sit outside for a while.

Just don’t breathe the fumes any more than necessary. Any chemical designed to destroy insects doesn’t do your insides any good either.

But if in spite of everything – the careful application of mosquito repellent, the long sleeves, the pant legs stuffed down into your socks – you still get bitten, use that timeproven defense against these bloodthirsty insects. If used soon enough it prevents bites. Used a little later it provides revenge. If a mosquito gets too close, swat it.



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