Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A world with no mosquitoes

A homeless guy who set up camp down the road from my place in Mississippi suffered what I suspect was, at least partly, a mosquito-borne psychosis. The consensus among the neighbors was that he had simply lost his mind. But losing your mind is never a simple matter -- a mind has to go someplace to get lost, and if, whenever it gets there, it finds its body tormented by mosquitoes, 24 hours a day, it’s liable to do far crazier things than it might otherwise have done.

I’m talking about a guy standing alone in the woods shouting, “God-damn it! Quit! Quit!” for hours on end, so that a synaptically stable person who lived within earshot came out of his house one morning, heard it and noted: Meltdown. When the person who lived in the house returned from the grocery store several hours later, he observed that the rant was still going on; even later, as he sat on the sofa watching TV, he realized (during the brief lull in the audio), that the voice yet cried in the wilderness; it did so deep into the night.

I wouldn’t disagree that the guy’s behavior was, for lack of a better word, crazy, and there had been plenty of other signs and portents. But one day, when the incessant buzzing of mosquitoes in my ears drove me to my own tiny breaking point, and I began shouting at them, I thought of him and wondered.

Another neighbor had reported hearing endless counting in the vicinity of the homeless guy’s sad little camp, much like chants, going up into the thousands, for hours on end. Was this, I wondered, perhaps a manic enumeration of mosquitoes? Whether the mosquito mania was cause or effect is hard to say, but sitting alone in the woods for days on end, with nothing to do, is one thing, and doing so while being eaten alive by mosquitoes is another.

I never had a chance to confirm my suspicions about the homeless guy’s breaking point – the sheriff’s deputies eventually escorted him off the property. But I'm pretty confident about the role mosquitoes played in pushing him, if not over the edge, at least into a realm that most of us fortunately never go. People tend to want to distance themselves from his sort of behavior, and rightly so. It’s like wanting a screened porch. If you knew about this person, you would feel sorry for him, but you would not likely attempt to intervene. That’s what deputies with Kevlar vests and loudspeakers are for.

The homeless guy spent the entire summer squatting on someone else’s property, without even a tent. It was a long, hot summer, most of it with relatively low mosquito activity, owing to a drought, but it was bookended by the inevitable counterbalance – droves of mosquitoes that were basically looting the world, with nothing to lose. By the end of August they were emerging from high-mortality conditions and no doubt instinctively knew they were headed, in a few short months (a lifetime for a mosquito) into colder weather. Once they got the moisture they needed to reproduce, they began dive-bombing every living thing.

For those of you who do not already know, because you are, what? school children? I should point out that when I refer to “mosquitoes” I’m talking about the females, which are the ones that bite. As a result of what seems a creator’s oversight, the females need more protein than they can generate on their own to develop their eggs, and the only way for them to get it is by stealing it. I suppose you could argue that we steal protein, too, from cows and tofu and so forth, but at least we build things, right? Mosquitoes take and take and appear to give nothing in return, which is another reason to hate them, if we needed one. One wonders: Is their dreadful buzzing and biting really necessary, from a cosmic perspective? Someone (me) innocently emerges from his house, planning only to take out the garbage, and therefore has not bothered to slather on ridiculous amounts of Deep Woods Off; is this really reason for parasitic party time?

I’m into the whole positive and negative forces of the universe thing. I understand that you have to have the good and the bad. God needs Satan, and the feeling is mutual. But sometimes the balance seems to tilt too far in one direction, which appears very much to be the case with mosquitoes. Normally, nature doesn’t like it when any one organism triumphs too well. The natural response is to strike the victor down. Why is that not the case with… vectors?

Seriously, this September. I have never seen the like of mosquitoes in Mississippi. It’s not possible to go outside at my house, which, admittedly, stands near the confluence of two sluggish creeks, without being bitten. If you spray yourself down with bug repellent they go after your eyes and lips and into your ear canals. Forget peeing outside. I love summer, and don’t mind when it’s 100 degrees and 90 percent humidity outside, but at times like this the idea of a frost holds certain attractions. And I say that knowing that “we need a hard freeze to kill the bugs” is total nonsense – it doesn’t work. Even after we get hit by one of those “Arctic clippers” that keep the weather channel people engorged between tornado outbreaks, when the temperature goes down to 14 degrees and everyone’s pipes freeze, two days later it’s 70 degrees and the mosquitoes are back at it. They apparently have places they can go, unlike the homeless guy down the road.

To put this September in context, it was extremely dry in July and August, and after a tropical storm came through and dumped a foot of rain on us, everywhere became an emergency mosquito breeding ground. Wedged between protracted drought and inevitable colder weather, they went on a hedonistic binge, which required blood, and lots of it. Their behavior reminded me of how bad the mosquitoes sometimes get on Horn Island, out in the Gulf, where, when you step ashore with your attractively exposed and remarkably thin skin, word quickly spreads among a population that must otherwise stick its probosci into animals protected by fur, feathers or hides that are used in the manufacture of handbags and cowboy boots. You, in your board shorts, are a mosquito’s dream come true.

At Holly Grove, therefore, retrieving something from the woods behind the garage – a den of unparalleled mosquito fervor – means putting on a rain coat, with a hood, when there isn’t a cloud in the sky, and meanwhile withdrawing your hands into the sleeves, like children do. Even then, you’re liable to get bitten on the nose.

My dog, whose name is Girl, spends her days lying or walking in a cloud of mosquitoes, her coat frightfully adorned with scores of them at any given moment. She is a veritable moveable feast. I’ve tried spraying her with Off, too, because it’s an awful sight to see, this unchecked mosquito-feeding upon your dog, but all that’s accomplished is to make her run from me when she sees me with the can. In order to pet Girl Dog I have to let her into the house, which is not so attractive for her as it normally would be, because I have to wave my hands over her and hurry her along to disperse the hordes of mosquitoes and prevent her from escorting them inside. Even when I’m outside, slathered with Off, and see Girl Dog approaching, I dread her getting near because I know what attends her. Sometimes, in fact, the tiny universe of mosquitoes gets to me before she does. I have, on occasion, when walking to my truck, resorted to running to avoid being repeatedly bitten, and once safely inside, have heard the tiny menacing sound of mosquitoes tapping on the glass. Seriously: There is such a sound. It’s insane, which is why I felt especially sorry for the homeless guy, and also why I decided to do some internet research to find out what it would be like if there were no more mosquitoes in the world, forever and ever amen.

Would that be a bad thing – the disappearance of mosquitoes, which are, you know, one of God’s creations, etc.? I know it would be nice for us, but I also know about what biologists refer to as the “web of life,” and the interconnectivity of species, and how if you remove one thing (even if it is, to us, a bad thing), it can have dangerous consequences for everything else. Like, if you got rid of all the snakes, you’d be overrun with mice and rats and thus, the plague. Every single thing plays a role. But, I wondered, would it be worth sacrificing a few good things, if that’s what it took, to rid the world of mosquitoes? I mean, if something has to go extinct, could it not be them?

You could argue, as some biologists do, that mosquitoes provide food for birds, or whatever, or even that, like viruses, they keep various populations in check, including ours. But if you argued that, who would vote for you? Even biologists who study mosquitoes, who’ve formed their professional identities around them, and make money from studying them, tend to admit that they’re basically a bad thing. These are people who submit tranquilized mice to captive mosquitoes, which then drain the mice of their blood, for science. The mosquitoes, by the way, would do the same to you if you sat out in the woods long enough. They would actually suck you dry.

The best source of information I found online for fantasizing about a world without mosquitoes – anopheles snuff porn, if you will – was an article in the July 2010 issue of Nature magazine titled “A World Without Mosquitoes,” which summarized its findings this way: “Eradicating any organism would have serious consequences for ecosystems — wouldn't it? Not when it comes to mosquitoes, finds Janet Fang.”

Fang. OK. The author.

What Janet Fang found, among other things, was that a scientist at Maryland’s Walter Reed Army Institute of Research actually raises mosquitoes, feeding the larvae ground-up fish food and offering “gravid females” blood to suck from the bellies of unconscious mice — they drain 24 of the rodents a month, and who (the scientist) has been studying mosquitoes for 20 years, yet “would rather they were wiped off the Earth.” The last part serves as a reminder that the scientist is, in the end, comprised of flesh and blood. One wonders if she’s ever tempted to open the door to her mosquito chamber and bomb it with Raid.

The scientist’s sentiment, Fang writes, “is widely shared,” if for no other reason than that malaria, which is borne by mosquitoes, infects some 247 million people worldwide each year, and kills nearly one million. Mosquitoes also spread yellow fever, dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis, Rift Valley fever, something with the catchy name of Chikungunya virus, and West Nile virus. Plus, in the Arctic, mosquitoes form swarms thick enough to asphyxiate caribou.

If, by magic, the world’s 3,500 species of mosquitoes (only “a couple of hundred” of which bite or otherwise bother humans) disappeared, the drawbacks would be largely acceptable, according to the article. Sure, some insects, birds and fish would lose a food source, and some plants would not get pollinated, but the consensus seems to be: So, what?

As the Nature article notes, “in many cases, scientists acknowledge that the ecological scar left by a missing mosquito would heal quickly as the niche was filled by other organisms. Life would continue as before — or even better.” I should point out that there’s a hidden message in that statement, which is that if mosquitoes disappeared, something else would start biting us just as bad. Insect ecologist Steven Juliano, of Illinois State University, in Normal, told Fang that when it comes to the major disease vectors, it’s difficult to see what the downside would be to the removal of mosquitoes, other than what he characterized as “collateral damage.”

“Collateral damage” is a freighted term, if ever there was one, and no doubt some scientists would disagree with the Normal guy’s assessment. A world that is safer for humans is not necessarily a stronger world, after all. But for most of us the disappearance of every last mosquito on Earth would, not surprisingly, be viewed as pretty good news.

The article also quotes a North Carolina entomologist who observed that without mosquitoes the number of migratory birds which nest in the tundras of the far North could be cut in half, due to the loss of a primary food source. The article does offer a disclaimer that some scientists believe the seasonal abundance of mosquitoes in the tundra – and thus, their importance as a food source for wildlife -- may be overestimated, for the simple reason that they’re so annoyingly attracted to us. Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the mosquitoes, in other words.

Among the potential ramifications of a theoretical worldwide mosquito eradication, perhaps the most interesting involves those caribou herds, which are thought to select their migratory paths facing into the wind for the purpose of escaping mosquito swarms. As the article notes, “A small change in path can have major consequences in an Arctic valley through which thousands of caribou migrate, trampling the ground, eating lichens, transporting nutrients, feeding wolves, and generally altering the ecology. Taken all together, then, mosquitoes would be missed in the Arctic — but is the same true elsewhere?”

Well, yes, in fact. Some species of fish would likely go extinct without mosquitoes, according to the article, including the appropriately named mosquito fish (Gambusia affinis), which would cause a ripple effect throughout the food chain. Many species of birds, insects, spiders, salamanders, lizards and frogs would also lose a primary food source. This would happen, basically, all over the world. Mosquitoes breed everywhere there is moisture, with some needing stagnant bodies of water but others requiring only a puddle in a tree stump or an old tire, or even the moisture that condenses on the undersides of leaves. Mosquitoes feed on decaying leaves, organic detritus and microorganisms, and they can do their thing in a very short time, such as during the brief summers of the otherwise frozen North.

One scientist quoted in the article agreed that despite the downsides, other organisms would fill the void if mosquitoes disappeared, and offered the not-entirely-reassuring analogy that, “If you pop one rivet out of an airplane's wing, it’s unlikely that the plane will cease to fly.” Still, some of the downsides would be impossible to predict. As a New Jersey scientist pointed out, people would also love to get rid of biting midges commonly called no-see-ums, but if that happened, tropical crops of cacao would no longer get pollinated, which, perhaps more alarmingly than the specter of a planet losing one of its wing-rivets, “would result in a world without chocolate.”

Obviously, the ramifications of planet-wide mosquitocide are debatable. As Fang notes, mosquitoes provide an ideal route for the spread of pathogenic microbes, yet those, too, are crucial to that pesky web of life. In the end, the ecological effect of eliminating harmful mosquitoes would be: More people. “Many lives would be saved; many more would no longer be sapped by disease,” Fang concludes. So: Good for us, and probably bad for the planet.

It’s interesting to think about, but that’s all we’re going to do. Planetary mosquito eradication is not going to happen. Mosquitoes are incomparably adaptable, due to their fecundity and short life spans -- that much we know. But it doesn’t stop us from imagining a world from which they are gone, or of trying to eliminate them from areas nearby.

I remember, as a child, the excitement I and my friends felt when we heard the approaching sound of the compressor on “the mosquito man’s truck,” which, on certain summer evenings, filled the city’s neighborhoods with a thick, white cloud of pungent insecticide. The sound of the mosquito man’s truck was more thrilling even than the tunes emitted by the ice cream truck when it made its presence known a block away. We enjoying running behind the truck, getting lost in the cloud, to emerge, perhaps, on another street, unsure where we were, our respiratory tracts filled with nervous toxins. No one seemed to care about the health risks back then, our only admonition being that we not get hit by cars as we ran into and out of the cloud.

Eventually, due to studies which showed that whatever insecticide was in that fog was harmful to the environment, the mix was changed and the mosquito man’s truck began emitting a clear, boring mist. We sat on our porches and watched the disappointing specter pass us by. At least there were no mosquitoes.

A friend of mine recently told me that he had a new anti-mosquito misting system installed in the eaves of his house, which periodically releases a non-toxic, natural mosquito repellant, which works very well, though only if you’re on the porch or nearby. Chemical insect repellent is likewise only moderately effective, and feels pretty gross. And scientists tell us that bug zappers – those black-light contraptions that people install by their patios, are not only ineffective at controlling mosquitoes but may kill far more beneficial insects, including some that feed on mosquitoes and their larvae. Not that people with bug zappers care. In the endless conflict between us and them, it is enough, apparently, to hear that zap and imagine that there’s one less tiny, insistent, buzzing menace in the crazy, mixed-up world.

Photo originally published in National Geographic.

No comments:

Post a Comment