Faith in Vermont: Mosquitoes: The War on Summer
“Why did I have to be born so tasty?!?” my daughter wailed, raking her fingernails across her shins. “I hate summer!”
In our neck of the woods, summer – which should be a season of backyard barbeques, kiddie pools in the yard, hours spent in the garden, and late nights chasing fireflies – is mosquito season. Before venturing outside, we slather on bug spray, don hats and inappropriately warm clothing, light citronella candles, and position fans by the picnic table. Those who don’t take these precautions, who treat summer like it’s a carefree time to wear shorts and tank tops and flip-flops, are condemned to scratch the itchy red welts covering their bodies.
And there are those, like the aforementioned daughter, who deal with summer by refusing to leave the house.
There is a war on summer – the only season when the Vermont climate might accurately be described as “mild” – and that war is being waged by the mosquitoes in our yard. Certain members of my family will happily strap on Nordic skis in subzero temperatures, yet balk at venturing outdoors on sunny, 80-degree summer days for fear of being munched by these annoying insects.
Throughout six summers of spraying, smacking, and scratching, I’ve observed that mosquitoes don’t seem to be equal-opportunity snack-ers. Some people -- like me -- forget to apply bug spray and spend a great deal of time outside, yet somehow manage to escape with only a smattering of small, itchy bumps.
Then there is my husband – a devout tooth-flosser, wearer of sunscreen, and applier of bug spray – who ends up covered with inflamed welts so large they could pass for additional appendages. Our eldest daughter, the one who bemoaned her tastiness, does indeed seem to have a strange appeal for mosquitoes: Although she prefers to spend summer knitting and reading in an armchair, after one brief foray into the outdoors she sported a horrifyingly swollen bite on her upper arm that made her appear to have a Popeye bicep for several days.
After six summers of this, I decided to do a little research. To know my enemy.
It turns out that mosquitoes have been around for roughly 30 million years, and there are about 2,700 species of mosquitoes. They lay their eggs in water, and live entirely in the water during the larva and pupa stage. This is why mosquitoes are so plentiful around our house: We live in the woods, which provide plenty of moist and shady spots for mosquitoes to congregate.
Female mosquitoes bite; males do not. Blood provides the females with proteins that they need to lay eggs, so only the females have the long proboscis (the long, sharp, straw-like mouth part) necessary for piercing skin and sucking blood. And my nonscientific observations were correct: Female mosquitoes are selective about whom they bite. Mosquitoes use a combination of chemical, heat, and visual sensors to hone in on their prey. They’re attracted to carbon dioxide, lactic acid, body heat, sweat, skin bacteria, and colors that contrast with the background. They seem to favor Type O blood over others. Also: They prefer you if you’ve been drinking beer.
Everything in the list above, apart from beer and clothing, is genetic. In fact, genetic factors may account for 85% of our susceptibility to mosquitoes. So, if you breathe out lots of carbon dioxide, secrete lots of lactic and uric acid, have a higher average body temperature, and have Type O blood, then you might as well crack open a beer: You’re a mosquito magnet.
A person’s reaction to mosquito bites may also be genetic.
When a mosquito strikes, she inserts her proboscis into your blood vessel and injects her saliva, which contains an anticoagulant to keep your blood from clotting while she drinks her fill. Itching, swelling, and redness at the bite site are an allergic reaction to the proteins in the mosquito’s saliva.
Some lucky people aren’t allergic to mosquito saliva, or they’ve been bitten enough so that their body develops immunity; these folks have no reaction to mosquito bites. Most people have minor allergic reactions – those small, itchy red bumps. But some people, like certain members of my family, are more sensitive and react to mosquito bites with large, raised welts. My husband and daughter seem to have lost the genetic lottery on this one.
It could be worse, though: “Skeeter syndrome” is a severe reaction to mosquito bites, marked by hives and fever. And, while anaphylactic reactions to mosquitoes are rare – swelling lips and tongue, wheezing, difficulty breathing -- they do exist and can be fatal.
Of course, mosquito bites can be fatal beyond allergic reactions. A partial list of infectious diseases that mosquitoes are known to carry: malaria, West Nile virus, encephalitis, dengue fever, and yellow fever.
Which led me to question: Why do mosquitoes exist? Understanding why they cause my family such discomfort is one thing, but this existential question nagged at me. I can suffer a little more willingly if I know that a greater good is being served. Is there a greater good to mosquitoes, or are they just annoying, potentially deadly pests?
I was shocked to discover that there does appear to be a point to mosquitoes. I was grudgingly aware that they’re an important food source for various birds, bats and fish. What I hadn’t realized is that mosquitoes also pollinate flowers, and mosquito larvae recycle organic matter and add nutrients to the soil.
In other words: Exterminate mosquitoes, and humans may be more comfortable (and have higher survival rates), but there would be a devastating ripple effect throughout the food chain.
What do you say, humans? Are we willing to douse ourselves in bug spray, and grin and bear these pests, in the interest of other species?
I thought so. Darn.
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone labradoodle — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.