Monday, July 30, 2018

As Regards the Mighty Mosquito

At Big Bras d’Or it is still mosquito high season. Black flies are pretty much behind us, no-see-ums are near their peak, deer flies are ascendant too; horse flies are just around the corner. But, ah, mosquitoes, well, they have flourished these past six weeks and they continue to impress us with their ability to proliferate and make their pesky presence perfectly plain despite our best efforts to minimize both their numbers and their impact on the inside of our screened sleeping porch.

It occurs to me that it is high time I give our buzzy neighbour his—forgive me, her—just due. Now please don’t misunderstand: my mission here is not to praise the most successful of our insect biters—no, definitely not that—but to acknowledge that if you think about it for a few moments longer than it takes to swat a mosquito charged with your precious lifeblood, you have to acknowledge that in the mosquito, Mother Nature has designed herself a pretty effective fellow traveler on Planet Earth.

I dare not venture which species of mosquito rules the roost on both sides of our porch screens these days: Canada boasts more than seventy species of mosquito of which 27 breed in Nova Scotia. At the first light of day these late-July mornings it is commonplace for us to count as many as a hundred mosquitoes gathered on the opposite sides of each of the screens separating our sleeping nook from the great outdoors. If only they were all on the right side of the screens but, no, at 5:30 in the morning we typically realize that as many as one in ten of the winged fellows are on the wrong side of the screen, many of them swollen with my blood or Jan’s.

Mosquitoes are equipped with a marvelous array of blood-finding tools: terrific eyesight, heat detection apparatus, first-rate flying skills. Step outside and mosquitoes find us straight away.

Every single one of the blood-loaded biters in our porch are females. Only females bite; they do so not because they are sadists bent on tormenting our kind but because it is essential to the continuation of their kind. The females cannot produce eggs without first having a blood meal. In the mosquito’s world only the females feed on blood. The males? They don’t trouble us at all: they are vegetarians, they feed on plant juices. Honest.

You need superior close-up vision to discern the distinction, but you can separate the males from the females by eye. The male boasts feathery antennae; the female’s are simpler, only sparsely hairy. We collect rainwater in three big barrels arrayed under the downspouts. It does not take long for the females to realize that the deep pools of the barrels are a good place to lay their eggs. We use rainwater for washing only—not for drinking or cooking—but mosquito larvae, called “wrigglers” for obvious reasons, turn into mosquitoes; we add a little bleach to the rainwater and hope to thereby control the local population. Our impression is that the measure is not especially effective.

I cannot tell you how many species of mosquito inhabit our planet; the number is many times greater than seventy. In North America there are tree-hole mosquitoes that carry out their procreative duties not in rain barrels but in tree cavities. There is even a snow mosquito of northern forests that makes its first spring appearance when the woodland duff is still well covered in snow. The female lays her eggs in pools of meltwater; no surprise, the larvae take longer to hatch than the species of Aedes that do their egg-laying in our rain barrels.

They are only doing what they’re supposed to, Bob Nagel would point out—quite correctly. We can hardly vilify them for doing precisely as Nature meant them to. But why would Nature have perpetrated such a game plan? Well, for one thing, mosquitoes provide excellent dining for the breeding warblers we cherish at Bigadore, the nighthawks that announce their presence as afternoon turns to evening, and to the bats that, sadly, are not nearly as evident in these parts as they once were. Without mosquitoes all these creatures would be in trouble.

Before my gentle reader leaps to the conclusion that myriad mosquito bites have driven me completely bonkers, relax: I will continue to burn mosquito coils at night, spray the screens with Raid, throw bleach into the rain barrels, and yes, go on a killing spree each and every morning I find two or three dozen gravid females on the inside of the screen, but I can’t help it: my resentment is tempered by more than a little grudging regard for the myriad features that make the mosquito a summer foe we can never defeat despite our best, most focussed efforts.

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