As children growing up, warm summer nights are meant for getting out and having fun. It may have been “Hide and Go Seek” in the dark, looking for frogs, camping, or any of a host of other possibilities, but the nights were warm and the clothing of the evening ought to be shorts and T-shirts. Another creature that appreciates nice warm summer nights isn’t exactly welcome, and I often wondered just why it was that these things had to be there to spoil the fun of otherwise perfect conditions. These creatures are, of course, MOSQUITOES.
As a biologist and entomologist I am filled with the notion that there is a place and a purpose for all living things on the Earth, and generally, once you understand the behavior and life cycles of bugs, you realize exactly how it is that they fit in. But mosquitoes? That’s been a tough one for me. Someone suggested that the value of mosquitoes is that of being an abundant food source for other animals. Well, I have no problem with that, but why couldn’t that food supply be one that doesn’t need to suck my blood? In the grand scheme of things, I suppose, an insect like the mosquito, which is capable of spreading numerous diseases to warm blooded animals, serves the role of reducing populations of those animals, thus maintaining those animals in manageable numbers in the environment.
This may be a fine thing for Mother Nature to have in her arsenal, but as humans we do not want to put up with the threat of sickness and death from vector-borne diseases, and of all the vectors in the world the mosquitoes reign as the supreme rulers. They carry such well known diseases as Malaria, Yellow Fever, and Encephalitis, and others that we may not be as familiar with, such as Filariasis and Dengue. These have been extraordinarily important in human history. Malaria, it has been hypothesized, may have killed, and today still kills 2 to 3 million people each year. An outbreak of a new form of encephalitis in 1999 – called West Nile Virus – killed nearly a dozen citizens of New York.
So, what is it about mosquitoes that we need to understand, in order to properly avoid the problems they can cause and to combat their presence?
Mosquitoes are flies. They are in the same large group of insects as are houseflies and fruit flies, called the Order Diptera. Within this Order the Mosquitoes occupy a family grouping called Culicidae, and all the members of the family of mosquitoes feed on other animals. By a great percentage the vast majority of species of mosquitoes in the world feed on the blood of animals, usually birds or mammals. However, there are a few species that are nectar feeders, and in fact it is only the female mosquitoes that suck our blood. The males are polite enough to take their eating habits to plants, where they feed on plant fluids such as nectar. There also are a few species whose larvae eat other mosquito larvae. There are around 170 different varieties of mosquitoes in just North America.
Mosquitoes undergo a life cycle called a “complete” life cycle. This means that the female lays eggs, the eggs hatch to larvae, the larvae grow and then turn into the pupae (like a cocoon in moths), and the adult mosquito subsequently hatches from the pupa to fly off and do its daily chores. The larva of any species of mosquito is an aquatic organism, and it must spend its time as the larva in water, where it actually serves some benefit by eating other tiny organisms in the water as a scavenger. So, female mosquitoes search for water sources in order to lay their eggs, and they can be pretty ingenious about it. The water may be large, visible sources, such as canals and swamps, or rainwater collections in ditches alongside the road. Or, it may be small sources of water that are more likely to be found in your backyard, and these are the ones you can control.
Here is a sampling of some possible sources of “standing” water that could be on your property, allowing thousands of mosquitoes to develop near your home:
- Pet water dishes and buckets that aren’t emptied and refilled regularly.
- Plastic pool covers that hold rainwater.
- Catch pans under outdoor potted plants.
- Fish ponds in the backyard.
- Cesspools and septic tanks that are not properly screened or blocked.
- Crawl spaces under the home that have standing rainwater puddles.
- Boats with water in their bottoms or on plastic boat covers.
- Cans, jars, barrels, tubs, old buckets – any containers in the yard that collect rainwater.
- Old tires – one of the worst sources of breeding mosquitoes.
- Tree holes – another of the worst sources of water to deal with, and the likely breeding site of several important mosquito species.
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