Down the Mosquitohole

By Tristan Gritton

A wet spring has made for a summer of many more mosquitoes than usual. This was to be the original topic of discussion, but some quick research showed that this definitely wouldn’t be the first time this was discussed. So, innocent and naive child that I was, I decided to plunge deeper into the world of mosquitoes and their abatement. I dove into the mosquito hole, and what I found just kept getting stranger and stranger.

Mosquitoes: Total War

When I started down the mosquitohole, I already knew that some chemicals were sprayed about, sometimes. What I wasn’t aware of was the campaign of outright total war waged against mosquitoes, illustrated by the Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District’s information on their processes. Put dramatically, the mosquitoes have their homes destroyed and are constantly being made victims of biological and chemical warfare. Put more level-headedly, the mosquitoes are controlled by clearing standing water (important for reproduction and incubation of the insects); promoting bacteria and wildlife that are harmful to mosquitoes and their larvae; and, only as a last resort, spraying chemicals poisonous to mosquitoes to kill the adults. The campaign is very organized and well thought out, as compared to the stereotype of a fleet of trucks that just carpet-poison an area. A lot of what is done happens before the larvae can grow into the adult mosquitoes we know and hate, clearing breeding grounds and introducing species to either kill the larvae or stunt their growth wildly. The pools of standing water will be analyzed to find how many larvae are probably in there, and thus help determine what course of action is to be taken. It’s something taken way more seriously than would be expected from pest control: a lot of thought has gone in to how to destroy mosquitoes. It’s practically at vigilante vendetta levels. Even with all of this organization, though, there are definitely some sketchy elements to this whole business.

Many of the chemicals and bacteria used to fight mosquitoes have not had tests for the effects of long-term exposure, mainly relying on tests of acute exposure and assuming no build-up. Take, for example, the fact sheet for Spinetoram, a product containing bacteria harmful to mosquitoes, which is notably classified as “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans,” though never fully confirmed to not be carcinogenic; long term studies of the effects on handlers were not conducted because they don’t expect there to be people handling this repeatedly over long periods of time. Put shortly, we don’t know how many of the products used against mosquitoes will affect us, and operate under the assumption that they won’t negatively affect us, an assumption propped up by a lack of test results confirming or denying it. 

So with all this in mind, the question comes up: How harmful do mosquitoes have to be for us to pull out highly organized tactics that seem over-the-top and might be harming ourselves? Surely, they must have something more to them than just being pests that spread disease, right?


Absolutely useless

Wrong. Well, mainly at least. Any organism is bound to have at least some ecological importance, but mosquitoes are surprisingly replaceable. Ecologists have, for the most part, failed to find evidence that eradication of mosquitoes would cause big food chain issues, as similarly sized and purposed insects would be likely to rise in population after the death of mosquitoes, effectively filling the gap that eradication would create. In trying to figure out what reasons there would be for keeping mosquitoes, I found three reasons that weren’t really jokes: that we can’t be absolutely and completely certain the ecosystem would be fine, that it would be difficult to do so without unintentionally poisoning other creatures, and one very creative reason that I’ll bring up later. These reasons come from the spoof Facebook page Save the Mosquitoes making fun of corporations pretending to care about the environment and a mockumentary short-film by the same name about a fake mosquito-lovers association. These were also among factoids about mosquito biology. And, of course, in trying to find reasons to keep them I found myself knee-deep in reasons to not keep them. The diseases they spread put them at a far net-negative for ecological health.

So yes, the methods are a little over-the-top and possibly dangerous. However, they may very well be worth it: It seems the little pests are practically useless, unless you like having the West Nile virus. This could be one of the few occasions where screaming “KILL IT KILL IT KILL IT” might work ecologically.

There are other harmful pests, too

Does the disease brought about by mosquitoes always end up being a bad thing, though? One reason for keeping them stuck with me: Mosquitoes work effectively as human repellants in otherwise sensitive areas. Humans, like mosquitoes, are effectively leeches on ecological systems that do disproportionate harm to their surroundings. The diseases mosquitoes  spread keep us out of rainforests the same way that the poison we spray keeps them out of temperate zones. The destruction that both species bring to the other is something that really helps balance them both out. Even though we’re both ecologically harmful, we have the benefit of keeping a creature that could be even more ecologically destructive from dominating. The mosquitoes gate out all but the most careful of people from areas that would otherwise be primed for our destruction. Maybe they’re worth keeping, not because they do direct good for the ecosystemes they inhabit, but because we could do worse than them. Maybe it’s also important that we keep the mosquitoes out of where we are, not letting them get out of control and kill the surrounding animals with the myriad diseases they carry. Maybe it’s a war where it’s best that no side wins.

This article was originally published on August 7, 2019.