A bone-white fragment peeked out from the wet, dark sand, and I picked it up. Not many things can remain pristine in sand, and I marveled at my find as I washed it in the ocean, then washed it again with the poolside hose. The remnant was unimposing in its current state, but in its prime, when it was alive and unbroken, it had been an impressive size. The veins of the sand dollar, worn by the ocean, reminded me of the tree of life and I wondered if this was what all sand dollar endoskeletons looked like as they started to wear down and disintegrate. My train of thought turned to Yggdrasil, the invisible tree of life which stands in the center of the world and mankind. I don’t even know how to say the word aloud, but it intoned a sense of connectivity and earthiness. I started thinking about other words I have trouble pronouncing. Porsche. Worcestershire. And you can’t have abhorrent without a whore! (I think that only works verbally, and even then, it’s not actually funny).
Suddenly, a rude pinch along the side of my neck interrupted my reverie, and a string of invectives filled my mouth. Luckily, only 1 or 2 escaped into verbal reality. But, I was miffed. I felt 1 pinch, but that didn’t mean I didn’t have additional bites. My legs already looked like I had some kind of pox, and I would wake in the middle of the night because I’d been scratching in my sleep and the itching made it burn. I slapped myself and thought it must look like I have Tourette’s. But this was not a tic (or for that matter, a tick), it was a damn mosquito. It was the vampiristic insect that plagued my daily life in Florida. Even though they are a separate type of insect, I group “no see ums” into this category. No see ums are biting midges, biting gnats, or sand flies. The biting midges, if you will, are smaller and can fit through screens, but the bites are strikingly similar in itchy effect.
I am not the only one who is perturbed by mosquitoes, though I am grateful that my complaint is that of a nuisance rather than heavier weight. Malaria kills approximately half a million people each year, and mosquitoes help spread yellow fever, dengue fever, Rift Valley fever, Japanese encephalitis, Chikungunya virus and West Nile virus.
At a certain point of being a blood donor for insects, you think: what purpose does this serve? Where does this nugget fit into the ecosystem, and what would happen if it wasn’t here? It there a butterfly effect for the measly mosquito?
I didn’t mean to get all mosquito genocide on this post… but maybe I should. I don’t generally have a violent or murderous outlook on life, but I’ll take a break from my pacifist tendencies to theorize. As a serious question: where would the world be without the ubiquitous mosquito? I’m tempted to get all Edwin Starr, War & Peace, and intone “what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.” After all, even if we are lucky enough that we are not perpetually bitten, sometimes we feel as though our liver is just a step away from accompaniment with fava beans for these pests. Maybe they are attracted to my sweat or blood type, and perhaps it is all about timing or location, but more likely it is a combination of these and other factors. However, because my daydreams and deliberations started with connectiveness and the tree of life, it is only fitting to examine whether there is, in fact, any relevance to the pesky mosquito.
So, what are they good for?
I’m sad to say, they seem to be contributors to the ecosystem. Ugh. I was (unkindly) hoping they were expendable. Mosquitoes are a food source for many aquatic species. Birds, fish, frogs and other insects feast on mosquitoes, and their population may decline if mosquitoes were extinct. One fish is even called a mosquitofish (Gambusa affinis), and it effectively targets mosquitoes and other insects. If mosquitoes were gone, and this fish disappeared because it had no/decreased food source, what other ecosystems might be affected?
Mosquitoes also influence the migratory path of Caribou in the Arctic by swarming. One article states that mosquitoes consume up to 300 milliliters of blood a day from each caribou in the herd. Gross. If Caribou did not have to avoid the swarms (apparently by traveling towards the wind), they may change the general ecosystem of the Arctic by attracting different predators, and trampling and eating plants along the altered routes.
In addition, mosquito larvae contribute to the pools of water in which they develop by feeding on “decaying leaves, organic detritus and microorganisms,” and filtering the water. This is more important in water pools in small pitcher plants, that are around 25-100 milliliters. Apparently, these pools are only filled with mosquitoes, midges, and other microorganisms such as bacteria, rotifiers and protozoa (I have no idea what the latter 2 are, and I’m ok with that). Other insects drown in the water, the evil midges eat the carcasses, and the mosquito larvae feed on the waste products. In this microcosmic horror film, absence of mosquitoes might impair plant growth.
Some scientists argue that these are not significant impacts based on the availability of other options. These scientists do not group mosquitoes and no see ums together, so the midge and other insects are viable alternative sources of food, filtration and swarming. In my opinion, that doesn’t solve my complaint because even a smidge of midge is too much. However, in a mighty strong counterargument, a scientist pointed out that the biting midges pollinate tropical crops such as cacao. Realizing that eliminating a nuisance may threaten access to chocolate puts me in a blind panic. And now I want a cookie.
There is no doubt that nations, companies, and individuals endeavor to control the population of or even eradicate mosquitoes. As a child, I remember playing outside sometimes as the bug truck sprayed the neighborhood. DDT is widely known to be harmful to human and bald eagle health, but it apparently eliminated malaria from the U.S. in the early 1950s. Use of the chemical was banned in 1972, and there has not been a significant resurgence of the disease. But the species of mosquitoes that were responsible for malaria transmission prior to 1950 are still prevalent in the U.S. today. Also, malaria is only 1 example of a mosquito-born illness. As of January 17, 2017, 2,038 human cases of West Nile Virus had been reported to the CDC in the U.S., and 56% of those cases were classified as neuro-invasive. An article stated, “while humans inadvertently drive beneficial species, from tuna to corals, to the edge of extinction, their best efforts can’t seriously threaten an insect with few redeeming features.” Burn!
Even if we theorize that removal of all mosquitoes from the world is possible without irreparable damage, I’m drawn back to my sand dollar and the appearance of the tree of life in its disintegrating endoskeleton. There is a slippery slope in the elimination of any species that is, to a large degree, impossible to quantify or qualify until it is too late. Then there is the issue of the manner of removal. I have no idea what our neighborhood bug truck sprayed into the air, but I’m comforted that it was less toxic than DDT even if the necessary implication was that it was also a less effective insecticide.
Do I feel immense satisfaction anytime I kill a mosquito? Yes. It is almost an irrational glee. But upon reflection, do I want to risk unforeseeable consequences by eliminating them from all ecosystems? No. Instead, I’m going to do internet searches for natural mosquito repellent and itch relief.
– Your huckleberry
P.S. – I relied on several websites as sources about mosquitoes, including Nature, international weekly journal of science (see, in particular, http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100721/full/466432a.html), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Any errors, omissions, and opinions are mine. Also, these articles looked helpful for natural mosquito repellent and treatment of bites: http://www.healthline.com/health/kinds-of-natural-mosquito-repellant#natural-mosquito-repellents1 and http://www.consumerreports.org/insect-repellent/do-natural-insect-repellents-work/.