On Mosquitoes and Mass Murder

I love napping on the porch in a summer rainstorm, sipping wine on the glider at sunset, reading or working in the fresh morning air, birdsong in the background …

Except that every time I try, I trudge back inside covered in itchy red welts.

Our previous dog assiduously licked every welt, which actually did seem to shorten their duration. They say dogs have good stuff on their tongues, along with the other stuff I would rather not think about. Anyway, I appreciated the thought. But it meant not using any toxic mosquito repellent he could lick off and die, so I suffered all the more. One summer I was so desperate, I bought mosquito netting and stitched “pants” I could slip on over my shorts. That was too dorky even for me, so I draped the rest around the little bistro table on the porch, envisioning myself as Isak Dinesen. The little bastards flew right under and bit me even harder. By summer’s end I was lying on the lounge chair so swathed in netting, I looked like a bargain-basement mummy. And they still found a way.

Sweat prickling like thousands of tiny bites, me flailing to swat at myself, I began to feel beleaguered. Somehow, I had to stop hating them. If nothing else, it might help my immune system.

This summer, resolved to take a different tack, I call Katie Westby, a staff scientist at Tyson Research Center. She studies container mosquitoes, the kind that hatch in puddles, bite us, pick up diseases from us, then infect everyone else they bite. If she can do this day after day, watching their scaly black backs arch and their spindly legs angle and their needles prepare for insertion, she must think they matter to the universe.

Unfortunately, I make the mistake of starting my inquiry with their feeding habits, a gambit that works beautifully with people. Westby describes regular trips to the Schnucks meat counter, where she smiles prettily and asks for lots of hog intestine. She then brings her package back to Tyson Research Center, where she is a staff scientist, and ties off a bit of intestine and fills it with cow blood delivered from California. Then she warms the balloon of blood in a water bath.

“Wait, you couldn’t find cow blood in the midwest?” I tease.

“Well, it’s also defibrinated,” she says, “so all the clots are out. And I’m a vegetarian, and I’m very squeamish. This way, it feels less real.”

She carries her warm ball of moo-cow blood to a mosquito cage and blows into the cage, “giving them a little carbon dioxide to get them excited.” She also feeds them decomposing leaves (they like the microorganisms) and cow liver dried to a powder. Plumped up with blood and rot and supremely content, the skeeters will mate, often in midair. “A male is two-thirds the size of a female, and he will be hanging upside down attached to the tip of her abdomen,” she explains politely, no hint of a snicker. “I’m sure you can find it on YouTube.

“They’re fascinating creatures,” she adds, and at this, I perk up. Fascination is the first step toward fondness. “Even trained ecologists are shocked when I tell them there are 3,500 species of mosquito,” she says. “To me, they are just as interesting as elephants.”

“Are they social, like honeybees?” I ask hopefully.

“Mm, no, they’re not social, but they do have cool behaviors.” When they realize a predator has eaten one of their buddies, they give off chemicals and stop foraging for food, changing their behavior to avoid getting eaten themselves, she says. “And when they take a blood meal and take in this 90-degree Celsius blood, they have to not burn up, so they have evolved a way to cool the blood inside them so they don’t get too hot and explode.”

I have been doing that since 2016.

“Blood is really nutritious, full of proteins and minerals,” she continues. “Only arthropods suck blood—leeches, ticks, a few moths. Blood feeding has evolved six different times, independently, without a common ancestor. One theory is that nest parasites were feeding on dead skin and accidentally started on the blood, and it was so delicious.”

Okay, this plan is not working. I give up on liking them and ask what she thinks of the new genetic schemes to decimate them.

Westby surprises me by saying, “If the disease carriers went away”—she lists the three main species—“I don’t think it would hurt anybody ecologically. They live in our trash; they’re in areas that have fewer predators, not out in the woods feeding bats. Nothing we know of feeds exclusively on mosquitoes.”

A deep calm comes over me. I trust this woman. She gave up squeamishness for natural science. Stereotyping madly, I have decided that she hates fuss and frippery, would rather hike than go clubbing, has a pure soul. Also, she is saying what I want to hear.

On the other hand, I have reported more than once about decimated species that crashed an ecosystem or genetic engineering that went awry. Ethicists worry about these mosquito schemes for the same reasons. If we use CRISPR technology to rear and release genetically modified mosquitoes that would then mate with mosquitoes in the wild—and make them sterile or bias reproduction toward non-biting males—there could be all sorts of unforeseen consequences, from surprise mutations to legal disputes. After years of court battles over Monsanto crops that blew into other farmers’ fields, we are looking at insects that could fly right across a country’s border. Indeed, DARPA (the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is pouring money into mosquito engineering for reasons that might not end up stopping with public health.

All of this makes me nervous, but at least we are not looking at the same huge profit motives that drove engineered crops and all that quite possibly carcinogenic glyphosate through the approval process at supersonic speed. I think about the plasma leakage and hemorrhaging in severe dengue; the pregnant women whose babies were born with microcephaly because of Zika; the fact that “chikungunya” means “to become contorted” because it causes such joint pain … and I find myself nodding when Westby says, “I’m for it. The amount of human suffering caused by these disease-carrying species is unfathomable. Humans aren’t my favorite species, but I don’t want them to suffer.”

Until now, we have swatted at the problem and only made it worse. When children were dying from severe malaria, the temporary solution was to treat bed nets with insecticides and spray insecticide indoors. Now, the mosquitoes are resistant to all insecticide classes and to the best of the anti-malarial drugs. CRISPR could be a better solution—if it is used with tremendous care and not imposed on communities without their okay. I feel more comfortable, though, with the not-for-profit World Mosquito Program, which uses Wolbachia bacteria to prevent mosquitoes from transmitting dengue, Zika, chikungunya, and yellow fever. Many insects naturally carry Wolbachia, but the mosquitoes that transmit these diseases do not. Once a few are infected with Wolbachia, it will spread and stay in that species’ local population, where it will knock out the viruses so they cannot reproduce.

Wolbachia goes to the root of the problem, keeps the mosquitoes from getting infected in the first place, and does so minimally, with no sexy genetic engineering. It has been rated a “negligible” risk for ecosystems. All of which means we will probably opt for flashier, more murderous methods. Meanwhile, biohackers are making DIY kits available so we can all use CRISPR to edit genes at home, an idea worse than an unlocked gun and charged with the same appeal. I could take my own revenge on the mosquitoes.

If I had their bloodlust.