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
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
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
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
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.