Terry Mejdrich

Here’s a question: What single entity is responsible for more human deaths than all the wars throughout all the ages of man? Here’s a hint. This entity is responsible for spreading the following: Malaria, dengue, West Nile virus, yellow fever, tularemia, several versions of encephalitis, Ross River fever, Barmah Forest fever, Zika fever, Keystone virus, Rift Valley fever, and others all of which can be fatal. As you may have surmised, the deadliest threat to humans is the mosquito.

What weapon killed more soldiers in every war up until WWII? It wasn’t a weapon. It was the various diseases the soldiers contracted, many of which were spread by mosquitoes. WWII was the first major conflict in human history where more deaths occurred because of combat rather than disease.

Earlier this summer a Minnesota agency released a report stating that in some parts of the state the mosquito population this year was up to five times what is considered normal. (Yes, apparently there is a state agency that counts mosquitoes.) But as we have been transitioning into cooler weather especially at night, which usually knocks down the mosquito and deer fly populations, the mosquitoes are so far still out in force. They are more than just an annoyance. Several deaths have occurred in the U.S., the latest in Michigan, from encephalitis where mosquitoes were the carriers.

Many years ago a popular mosquito deterrent was the ‘bug zapper’. It consisted of a light surrounded by metal mesh that had electrical current running through it. Mosquitoes, the theory went, would be attracted to the light, hit the mesh and be instantly incinerated. And it worked. But the zappers quickly fell out of favor because they killed indiscriminately. Lots of mosquitoes and pesky bugs got toasted, but also other harmless moths and beneficial insects. Soon it became obvious that the zappers were doing more harm than good. Zappers had another flaw no one anticipated in that in certain cases they actually increased the mosquito population, though it can be at least partially blamed on placement. Sometimes the zappers attracted more mosquitoes than they killed. So if you had one hanging in the back yard, it was actually bringing more mosquitoes there than there would normally be, even though it was also killing many.

Suppose you want to test to see if some nasty pest is in your area. You haven’t seen any but you know that they have been spotted in the next county. So you set out traps with a lure that is irresistible to them. You surmise that if there are any in your area you will soon find out. What might be the problem with this reasoning? Your attractant might actually be what brings them into your area.

Back to mosquitoes, what can be done to reduce their population? In the fifties the answer was DDT, a man made chemical that was used to ‘fog’ cities and towns. It was supposed to be harmless to people and animals and it killed mosquitoes and just about every other insect. (Many cities still apply chemicals for mosquito control, usually at night, but not DDT.) But it also nearly wiped out several bird species. Another project introduced sterile mosquitoes into the population, but that is like the proverbial drop in the bucket. What works best to control mosquito populations are the various animals and plants that like to eat them including bats, dragonflies, many bird species, frogs, toads, and predatory insects. But, ironically, human activities including the use of chemicals have in many cases sharply reduced the number of those species, therefore worsening the ‘mosquito problem’. Maybe we have to get past the idea that the key to solving our pest problems is to simply throw more chemicals at them.

Email Terry Mejdrich at mejdrichto@yahoo.com.

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