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By Lou Bergeron


The Mosquito and Me

An inhabitant of Earth considers his relationship with a ubiquitous companion.

HOT, STICKY SUMMER NIGHTS are a fact of life in the Midwest -- nights when the temperature and humidity are both up in the 90s. The air is dead. Nothing moves. All the windows in the bedroom are open but everything is so still and lifeless and stuffy it feels like you're trapped, sweltering, in an airless coffin. You lie on top of he sheets and perspire and try to sleep, and can't. Hours pass as you drift in and out of a light, fitful sleep. At some point as you're dozing, perhaps finally tumbling into the deep slumber your exhausted mind and body crave, a sound rises in the darkness, a faint, distant droning sound that at first doesn't quite register on your groggy brain, slowly grows louder. Then suddenly it's right in your ear, buzzing full force, jarring you awake and upright. Cursing, you reel through the darkness for the lamp switch, and your half-blinded eyes search the jarringly illuminated room, and in your mind you hear yourself muttering its name like an oath.

Mosquito. An ancient plague upon humankind. Bringer of malaria and yellow fever. Spreader of hepatitis. Taker of blood. Relentless in her search for sustenance. Unwavering in her determination. Unswerving in her pursuit. She will find you. When she does, she will pierce your flesh with her needle-like proboscis, and she will feed.

Growing up in central Illinois, I endured many a midnight assault by a mosquito. Now I live on the coast of central California. Hot, humid, breezeless nights are rare here. Mosquitoes, alas, are not. They still find their way into my bedroom before I close it up in the evening. They still wake me in the middle of the night, and I still flick on the light, muttering curses, and scan the room for the culprit. Sometimes I spot the intruder, and try to crush it between my hands. Too often it slips away and goes skimming up the wall, away from me and the light, toward the ceiling. I sink back into bed and watch it. Slowly, erratically, it flies along the ceiling, out of reach. Watching it hover, I think about how it will try to bite me again when I turn out the light, and wonder why it is so driven in its desire to drink my blood.

After recently enduring another such assault, I embarked on a quest to understand the mosquito's motivations. Most of what I learned only strengthened my distaste for the creature that D.H. Lawrence described in his poem "Mosquito" as a "ghoul on wings." But I found other perspectives as well.

Browsing through the entomology section of library, I chanced upon a slender volume titled Bugs and their Companions, by one Sophie Bronson Titterington. Published in Philadelphia in 1890 by the American Baptist Publication Society, the book relates the story of the Mason twins, Ned and Nell, as they learn about insects from their Uncle Jack.

The children are enthralled as Uncle Jack regales them with tales almost exclusively about bugs that sting or bite. Wasps, hornets, fleas and more are all described. Jack characterizes the fly as "a little scavenger, eating refuse," and a story about a bee elicits a delighted response from sweet Nell, who cries, "What a wonderful little insect!" apparently unperturbed that her infant brother had been stung by a nest of them a few days before. Jack also delivers a soliloquy about "Mr. Mosquito."

The lecture on mosquitoes commences with young Ned imploring Uncle Jack to elaborate on an earlier remark about how "the mosquito carries a whole tool chest in his mouth." Though Uncle Jack's explanation is flawed in that he refers to "Mr. Mosquito," when it is actually the female that draws blood, it turns out Jack is reasonably correct in his description of the contents of a mosquito's mouth.

As Jack informs the reader, the long slender proboscis that we see sticking into our flesh when a mosquito bites us is actually the lower lip of the bug. The lip forms a thin sheath that encases half a dozen razor-sharp instruments -- described in most texts as surgical probes or stilettos -- that facilitate the insect's imbibing. Open on the back, the sheath bends out of the way as the daggers are inserted into skin. Two needlelike mandibles working in concert with a pair of slender saw-toothed blades make quick work of the skin that lies between the mosquito and its repast.

Once the mosquito has finished drilling and gouging into your flesh, it inserts a tube containing a salivary duct. As if to remove all doubt as to the nature of your relationship, it spits -- not just on you, but in you. Its saliva, equal parts anticoagulant and insult, mixes with your blood, thinning it to a delectable consistency. The hungry mosquito plunges the strawlike digestive tube into the bloody hole it has stabbed and sawed into your flesh and begins sucking out your juice. A photo of a mosquito thus engaged shows it leaning down over the opening, holding onto its drinking tube with one of two short auxiliary appendages, giving it the casual air of a teenager at a soda fountain leaning on one elbow and sucking down a shake.

The reason for all this ghoulish gadgetry is simple. Motherly love. Even the loathsome mosquito yields to the maternal instinct to provide for her young. To produce the largest, healthiest brood of which she is capable, she must first sip the sweet nectar pulsing through our veins. No wonder she is so determined to dine on us.

Once gorged on our life force, the little mother retires to the nursery for several days of quiet contemplation until she is ready to lay her eggs. As befits a parasite, mosquitoes often lay their eggs in fetid, murky water, a birthing room festooned with garbage and detritus.

The eggs vary in shape depending on the species, and may be laid singly or in bunches. One of the more common mosquito species in North America lays rafts of up to several hundred eggs, kept afloat by trapped air. Standing up neatly in row after row, the oblong, bullet-shaped eggs look like ammunition -- bandoliers of cartridges waiting to be fired into our flesh. But before the payloads of these projectiles can pierce us they must, of course, hatch and mature. When the larvae of many species emerge from the eggs, they indulge the first of their unholy appetites, falling into an orgy of adolescent cannibalism. As the author of one text noted, "Many mosquito larvae have an aberrant way of life."

After an infancy of anywhere from several days to several months, depending on the species, the larva curls up into a pupa. Over a few days of apparent dormancy, a rapid transformation takes place within the pupal skin until a new adult mosquito suddenly bursts forth. A young male sets out in search of plant sap to sustain himself, while the female begins her hunt for blood.

Far too often, it is my blood the huntress seeks. Though I might be surrounded by other human quarry, I always seem to end up sporting the most wounds. It may be the amount of body heat I exude, having been blessed with a rapid metabolism. Or it could be the carbon dioxide I exhale. Both are homing signals to this wily tracker.

Sometimes I spot a would-be diner as she bellies up to the table of my flesh. On such occasions, I generally succumb to my rudest impulses, and try to bid a permanent farewell to my uninvited guest. When I succeed, I've noticed that even the lowly mosquito tends to assume a posture seen in countless depictions of deceased humans lying in repose, from the Egyptian pharaohs in their elaborate sarcophagi to outlaws of the Old West laid out on the wooden sidewalk of a dusty cowtown. The mosquito, too, folds its limbs across its torso. There is something in that position that lends the deceased a quiet dignity, and imparts an air of finality that imbues me with a small sense of accomplishment. But it seems not everyone is so fulfilled by a mosquito's passing.

In the far north woods of Wisconsin, the Teaching Drum Outdoor School offers classes in what it calls "the Old Way." Among the offerings are classes in medicinal plants, tanning hides, and canoeing, along with more spiritually oriented courses including one titled "Song of the Mosquito." The class is taught by a gentleman who calls himself Tamarack and claims to have been inspired "to seek Mosquito's wisdom." Having apparently succeeded in that quest, he feels he must share this gift, and to that end he seeks "to guide others on the path to knowing and embracing Mosquito." The course description notes that participants "are asked to give in order to receive; for this particular gift, pain is the offering." After some ritual preparation, the students strip bare, and offer themselves to Mosquito.

Were Ned and Nell and Uncle Jack still alive, I could easily imagine them among the eager seekers of wisdom in Tamarack's class, reveling not in the demise of mosquitoes, but rather in "baring themselves to Mosquito in order to clearly hear her voice."

As for myself, fascinated though I am by the prospect of the exercises that occur in Tamarack's class, I remain steadfast in my feelings of revulsion for the buzzing wings of a mosquito. I side with D.H. Lawrence, who described the sound of the mosquito as "a small, high, hateful bugle in my ear." Not yet enlightened enough to truly embrace mosquitoes, I think I'll probably just keep giving them the same old hearty handshake, that artificially friendly, two-handed clasp.