This time of year, sitting from our lovely perch in the cold and dreary fog, we dream of summer, and know it’s out there somewhere. But what’s one thing we don’t miss about this season of supposed sunshine and warm weather? Mosquitoes.
And it seems we’re not alone. In the prestigious journal Nature last week, reporter Janet Fang argues that if mosquitoes were removed from the global ecosystem, they wouldn’t be missed. But what about biodiversity, you say?
Well, first of all, Fang says, mosquitoes cause a lot of problems:
Malaria infects some 247 million people worldwide each year, and kills nearly one million. Mosquitoes cause a huge further medical and financial burden by spreading yellow fever, dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis, Rift Valley fever, Chikungunya virus and West Nile virus. Then there's the pest factor: they form swarms thick enough to asphyxiate caribou in Alaska and now, as their numbers reach a seasonal peak, their proboscises are plunged into human flesh across the Northern Hemisphere.
3,500 species of mosquitoes occupy almost every continent. And interestingly, all the bloodsuckers from the several hundred species that feed on humans are female. Writer Sonia Shah, explained why on Fresh Air last week:
The itchy bites that we get are from the female mosquito trying to suck our blood, and the reason they are taking blood is, not for food for themselves, but to nourish their eggs.
Fish, reptiles, birds and bats feed on mosquitoes, but after speaking with scientists, Fang discovered that other insects could probably replace the mosquitoes in these creatures’ diets:
“If you’re expending energy,” says medical entomologist Janet McAllister of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Fort Collins, Colorado, “are you going to eat the 22-ounce filet-mignon moth or the 6-ounce hamburger mosquito?”
With many options on the menu, it seems that most insect-eaters would not go hungry in a mosquito-free world.
Pollinating and decomposing plant matter are vital occupations of mosquitoes, and some plant species could be affected. But overall, Fang states that:
The romantic notion of every creature having a vital place in nature may not be enough to plead the mosquito’s case. It is the limitations of mosquito-killing methods, not the limitations of intent, that make a world without mosquitoes unlikely.
And so, 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. “They don’t occupy an unassailable niche in the environment,” says entomologist Joe Conlon, of the American Mosquito Control Association in Jacksonville, Florida. “If we eradicated them tomorrow, the ecosystems where they are active will hiccup and then get on with life. Something better or worse would take over.”
In the meantime, according to the New York Times, we’ll continue to hear the background music of “Whine-slap. Whine-slap.”