What Grinds My Gears: Mosquitoes

Hello and welcome to my column “What Grinds my Gears”. Initially, this column started as an argument with a friend about washing hotel towels and the effects on the environment of doing laundry. What started as a small paragraph arguing my point quickly unfolded into a deep path of research. From the joy of research this topic, I decided to create a column and later covered coffee cups and the Wankel engine. I look forward to starting my monthly column again, and this time I’m covering a topic that I know grinds everybody’s gears: mosquitoes.

This summer has been especially bad for mosquitoes. The constant rainy days and cold, cloudy weather has made camping grounds a spawning pool for these terrible creatures. I was camping in Killarney recently and there was no escape. During the day, the forest was filled with mosquitoes biting me and my dog. During night, the mosquitoes trapped in my dog’s fur made their way into my tent and attacked me for hours.

These bugs are annoying, and their damage to humans goes well beyond a minor inconvenience. They’re the deadliest animal to humans, killing much more people than sharks or bears. They infect over 240 million people every year with malaria, and are responsible for 700,000 deaths every year.

The best defense against mosquitoes is to either wear clothing that covers your whole body, or spray yourself with mosquito repellant filled with DEET. This chemical, which was developed as a bug repellant in the 1940’s for jungle warfare, burns the skin, smells bad, and is a possible neurotoxin.

Research is currently underway for a new defense against mosquitoes: no mosquitoes. According to Janet Fang of Nature, there would be little to no repercussions of ridding the world of mosquitoes. There are no predatory species which rely on mosquitoes as their primary food source, and any effects that would come from getting rid of mosquitoes could easily be mitigated by the increase in other insect species in their absence.

Of the 3,500 species of mosquitoes, only a few hundred bite people, so the goal is not to exterminate all mosquitoes, only a select number of species. People also get the wrong impression of the number of mosquitoes in Canada since they selectively target us. The forest is not actually swarmed with them and instead only we are.

The technique used to eliminate mosquitoes may even be more ethical than current population control methods such as insecticides. First suggested in 1955 by Edward Kipling, the chief of entomology research for the U.S.D.A., the Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) introduces a large number of sterile males into the mosquito population. This limits the reproductive potential of the female mosquitoes, and over time, acts as a means of population control.

The SIT has been widely supported since it was first theorized, and has been tested on the field. In 1974, Christine Lofgren introduced 4.3 million sterile male mosquitoes into Lake Apastepeque in El Salvador. It was found that doing so eliminated 99% of the local population. This research was further supported in 2003 by Benedict & Robinson of the Entomology unit of the Food and Agricultural Organization of Austria.

Although the possibility of a widespread implementation of SIT was impossible at the time of these research studies due to cost, new technologies allow for this to be an inexpensive method of pest control.

There are still concerns of the effects of eliminating a species from the environment, as well as releasing genetically modified insects into the wild. But when a survey was conducted in Key West, Florida in 2015 following a dengue epidemic, 57% of participants were supportive of SIT, while only 17.9% were opposed. Supporters often cited SIT as a more natural way of controlling insect populations than other methods.

The deadliest animal in existence is also responsible for grinding the most gears, and we’re finally at a point where technology can allow us to wipe them out. They are not the primary food source of any predator, and are responsible for killing 700,000 people a year. With the introduction of SIT, we may be able to go camping without mosquito repellant for the first time.

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