Sign up for our free newsletter
She came after me at dusk. I’d been expecting her—her, or one of her sisters. They’re creatures of habit—all day and all of the night, ready to put the bite on. Some females do it only between sunset and dawn. Not these dames: Dawdle in the wrong neighborhood at any hour and you’re fresh meat.
I live in the wrong neighborhood—shady, leafy, lots of standing water—so our encounter was inevitable.
She homed in silently, though the porch fan might’ve muffled her telltale whine.
One second she wasn’t there, and the next she was, a classic specimen of a particular femininity—all business, from those glossy hindquarters, seductively hoisted as if by a denizen of the demimonde, to her moneymaker.
Her proboscis, that is.
She was a female Asian tiger mosquito. That’s what they say on the street, anyway. Serious biologists say, “Aëdes albopictus,” or just “aëdes,” and they say it with respect, because in her division, the Asian tiger is a world-class bloodsucker.
But I was ready.
I sat still. She lighted on my right forearm, nuzzling around, then jabbing her snout in, deep and hard.
Instantly, I was losing blood, but I had a trick up my sleeve.
When a mosquito feeds, it’s possible to turn the tables. Once she—always “she”; only gravid, or egg-bearing, females bite—roots in, you apply thumb and forefinger and squeeze or stretch the surrounding skin. This usually keeps the mosquito from withdrawing her needle nose. If you have the perverse patience to hold tight, your attacker slurps your precious bodily essence until her abdomen bursts. I’ve splattered a couple of good shirts that way. It was worth it.
But girlfriend didn’t care about my ploy. She stayed at the trough a mite longer than usual. I could see her scaly thorax going rubicund. Then, tight skin or no tight skin, she flew off, leaving me to wonder what else I might not know about Aëdes albopictus, or her cousins in the culex genus, or other mosquitoes, for that matter.
A great deal, as it turned out.
The aëdes lady that chomped me was of a species once native to the Land of the Rising Sun. A hundred million years ago or so, her tropical ancestors fed on reptiles. Later, they acquired a taste for the blood of birds and mammals, found by tracking exhaled carbon dioxide and bitten only by females, to provide their young with a nutritious send-off. Only a few mosquito genera—anopheles, culex, and aëdes—transmit disease, but the diseases they transmit can be catastrophic.
Though minuscule—a hungry one weighs one ten-thousandth of an ounce, a sated one thrice that—mosquitoes are messengers of the sublime, that awe-inducing aspect of nature’s power. Evolution sent them ranging around the world, from rain forests to the Canadian Arctic to Japan, where A. albopictus grew inured to harsh winters. All mosquitoes reproduce in lakes, ponds, and other still water. Aëdes females learned to lay eggs in or near mere dots of stagnant water—the puddlets that collect in tree holes and kindred crannies, for instance.
Even without water, A. albopictus eggs could survive, waiting for the animating touch of moisture, whereupon the eggs would hatch, the larvae would begin wriggling, and pretty soon someone nearby would be scratching and slapping—and not merely at sunrise and sunset, when many mosquito species feed, but at all hours—another adaptation that helped aëdes thrive.
As Japan modernized, so did aëdes, adjusting to the built environment’s accidental habitats: pots, gutters, buckets, bottle caps, tarpaulin folds, and that condominium of the mosquito universe, the discarded tire.
Now A. albopictus is a fixture in North America, a big-time invasive species. Of course, the notion of a species being “invasive”—prospering deleteriously in regions once denied it by habit, natural barrier, or diktat—comes from that ur-invasive species, Homo sapiens sapiens. Humankind will forever outpace the snakehead, the lionfish, the porcelainberry vine, and other organisms tagged “invasive.” In fact, without human help, most such critters would stay where they are. We have met the enemy, as Pogo said, and he is us.
Bringing the Asian tiger mosquito into our midst has made D.C.’s irksome summer that much more of a pain in the arm, face, leg, and wherever else, but it’s also broadened the common ground of seasonal misery. In a region fragmented by race, creed, color, citizenship, and other particulars, the mosquito bite is the universal of Washington life. Native or arriviste, commuter or cave dweller, big cheese or small beer, everyone hereabouts has a version of the narrative—and a theory about how to dodge bites.
Bethesdan Steve Dryden uses Deep Woods Off and Burt’s Bees Lemon Lotion. Not that Asian tigers notice.
“They’re as predictable as clockwork,” says Dryden, who also doses his fishpond with larvicide, in hopes of offing any immature mosquitoes that escape his ravenous koi. “Every afternoon around 3 or 4, you can’t go into the yard without coming under immediate attack by Asian tigers, as well as regular mosquitoes,” he adds. “Those tigers are so fast, it’s eerie. I’ve only seen one or two of them, but I know they’re biting me—they do the job in a few seconds and they’re gone, leaving me with a nice set of welts.”
But these days, the rumpus is less about maddening temporary welts than about serious permanent disease. For centuries, these flylike pests—“mosquito” is Spanish for “little fly”—have plagued humanity not only by drawing blood but in the process transmitting malaria, yellow fever, and other illnesses. To paraphrase Tom Robbins’ mot juste regarding humans and water, diseases seem to have invented mosquitoes as a way to get from one place to another, and lately the disease that’s hitchhiking along is the fright-worthy West Nile virus.
West Nile is a flavivirus, the family that includes the organisms that cause St. Louis and Japanese encephalitis. It was isolated in 1937 by researchers who named it for the West Nile district of Uganda, where it was discovered. Then as now, it was transmitted by mosquitoes that bit infected birds and then fed on humans, injecting the virus along with their saliva. West Nile virus was known for flulike symptoms and fever, but little else.
But during the ’90s, West Nile manned up, becoming neuroinvasive. Like its encephalitis-causing cousins, it now could penetrate the human central nervous system. The initial symptoms—fever, headache, and so forth—remained the same; most of those who got sick recovered handily, often without even knowing they’d been infected. However, in some patients, the revised West Nile slugged far harder, causing meningitis (inflammation of the meninges, banks of tissue that cushion the brain), encephalitis (inflammation of the brain itself), or flaccid paralysis, a poliolike spinal-cord infection. Though all three are survivable, some patients suffer permanent injury, and a few die.
The West Nile virus had re-engineered itself to kill and maim, and now it was spreading around the world. In 1996, Romanian physicians documented an outbreak; later, so did doctors in Russia and New York (1999) and Israel (2000).
Few of those infected even saw a doctor. But in a fraction—less than 1 percent—of cases, West Nile patients developed virulent encephalitis and meningitis. People were dying and being paralyzed. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) went after the virus, advising states, counties, and cities on how to monitor, document, and contain the virus through public education and anti-mosquito programs. There is no known cure for West Nile; potential treatments are under study at the National Institutes of Health.
Mosquitoes transmit West Nile; birds are their co-conspirators. It’s a cycle. West Nile flourishes in crows, magpies, blue jays, and other corvids. Infected birds live long enough for more mosquitoes to pick up the virus, then die, sometimes plummeting from the sky, as they did in the East in the summer of 1999 and have been doing somewhere every summer since as the virus has rolled westward.
Sick and dead crows are one thing; sick and dead humans are another. In 2002, the CDC tallied 2,942 cases of West Nile meningitis and encephalitis, with 276 deaths, most in the East. For 2003, the figures were 2,866 cases of meningitis and encephalitis and 246 deaths, many in Colorado and Arizona. Last month, California, littoral zone of the 2004 West Nile wave, reported its first human fatality.
West Nile’s onset triggered action in a nation retrospectively rankled by its laggard response to AIDS the decade before. First came West Nile headlines, then West Nile task forces, then permanent West Nile offices. D.C. has had one since 1999, when, coincident to the New York outbreak, the virus struck here. It cast a creepy pall, familiar to anyone old enough to remember the polio scares of the ’50s. As neighborhoods once raucous with flocks of crows went eerily quiet, nervous elders barked at kids for fiddling with the damned dead birds that littered yards, alleys, streets, and parks, hustling children inside at dusk, to keep them from being bitten by those fancy new black-and-white mosquitoes that seemed to move like lightning. That autumn’s first hard frost felt like a blessing.
Most folks don’t have to fear a near-fatal bout with West Nile, but many still worry about it—and about the enthusiasm with which the Asian tiger mosquito pursues them.
One balm for the bite-weary: the insect repellent DEET, which keeps mosquitoes at bay better than anything outside of staying inside—at a potential risk. Active ingredient N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide can cause rashes and eye irritation; it’s been accused of worse, but the Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency say DEET is safe when used as recommended.
Americans apply the stuff to the tune of 400 million smears per year. Paul Jeffs is one of them. At home, the Palisades resident finds simply watering the tomato and cucumber plants in his back yard and on his balconies an itchy, twitchy endurance match.
“I’m out there in the morning for 10 minutes at most, waving my arms and hopping around like a lunatic, and I still get bitten four or five times,” says Jeffs, with a flourish of tarantellic technique. “And that’s after soaking myself in 100 percent DEET, which is not something I want to be doing on a regular basis. It’s enough to make me think about cutting back on gardening.”
Jeffs buys more DEET than most. He runs a construction firm with 35 tradesmen at a dozen sites, and doesn’t want tigers’ efficiency as predators impairing his workers’ efficiency as builders. So he distributes caseloads of the repellent, all the while thinking things aren’t what they used to be, and may never be again.
“I don’t know why, but they seem to be biting more and harder than ever. Even in completely urban settings like Dupont Circle, where you never used to see mosquitoes, I’m seeing them—and being bitten by them,” says Jeffs, citing the Asian tiger as the culprit he swats at most regularly.
But the tiger didn’t always ride bus-fume thermals at Connecticut and R, or lurk in shrubs at the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home, or lay eggs in Shaw. To become the pest du jour, it had to get here.
Diseases travel by mosquito, but any given mosquito doesn’t get around much. Save for anomalies like the Atlantic Coast’s big-biting salt-marsh ’skeeters, which can cover 40 miles a day, most mosquitoes develop and hatch and mate and bite and beget and die within the same few blocks. A. albopictus flies 300 yards at most, and in many instances much less.
For so constrained a species to vault the Pacific from Japan to the United States—remember, Jimmy Doolittle’s Tokyo raiders had to ride a carrier—you’d think it would take an act of Congress.
You’d be correct.
In bravura illustration of the law of unintended consequences, the greatest deliberative body on Earth brought us the Asian tiger mosquito. It happened in the Age of Reagan, when a GOP-driven Congress was rabid to get government off Americans’ backs and out of their wallets. One easy target was the federal excise tax on passenger tires, which boosted the price of new rubber by several bucks. The 1984 highway bill included a provision killing the tax and instantly lowering John Q. American’s tire outlays.
The move also helped the trucking industry, because the tax also applied to retreadable tire casings for commercial vehicles. “Retread” may be a pejorative, but not among truckers, who reuse casings six or seven times. These days, that represents more than $6,000 in long-haul savings over the cost of new tires for an 18-wheeler. Prices were lower 20 years ago, but the fiscal logic behind retreading was just as sound.
The tax code tinkering spawned a boom market for retread truck-tire casings. Soon after the legislation took effect, a shortage loomed. You wouldn’t think it, but the United States never has enough used tires—of the retreadable sort, that is. In 1984, thanks to the tire excise tax’s demise, a retread shortage loomed. Where would America find millions of used casings?
In the land of Kyu Sakamoto, the 240Z, the Walkman, and Sailor Moon, that’s where. Japan had huge stockpiles of casings, and between 1984 and 1987, boatloads of them reached the States at Houston, from which they journeyed to retreading yards.
Except nobody checked those casings for the eggs of A. albopictus, long a tenant of Japan’s used tires. First deep in the heart of Texas, and then in a pattern radiating along the paths taken by those imported casings, a new mosquito was making itself comfortable.
The first domestic sightings of what we now call the Asian tiger came in 1987—unsurprisingly, around Houston. Welts were raised, and alarums. Health fears voiced. Headlines set. Officials hectored. Inquiries undertaken. Fingers pointed. Explanations tendered. Forelocks tugged. Goats scaped. And the tire industry and federal regulators quickly agreed on standards for inspecting and spraying import retreads to repel A. albopictus at the borders.
By then, of course, the simile was out of the metaphor. Like A. aegypti—the yellow-fever mosquito—and no end of other invaders, A. albopictus was an immigrant success story with a rep for sticking its proboscis where it wasn’t wanted. The Asian tiger spent the late ’80s and the ’90s spreading hither, thither, and yon across these United States, eventually arriving in D.C. the same year West Nile virus did, in 1999.
For any mosquito, but especially for a mosquito that breeds in tiny containers and can stand cold, the capital, with its encouragingly fetid summers and benignly mild winters, never mind its gazillions of flowerpot trays, clogged roof gutters, upended bottle caps, crinkly tarps, cracked alleys, busted fence caps, and, especially, junk tires, offers an endless array of reproductive possibilities. Asian tigers immediately set about displacing culex and other resident mosquitoes.
But don’t harsh on the buzzer, says entomologist Benedict Pagac of the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine. The Fort Meade, Md.–based center has been monitoring mosquitoes across the Northeast for 15 years. Though a civilian, Pagac has a warrior’s regard for a worthy opponent.
“What we call ‘invasive species’ aren’t invading in a diabolic sense—they’re simply doing what comes natural,” Pagac says. “They’re just exploiting resources that are made available to them. If there were no tire trade, they wouldn’t go out of their way to find tires. It’s just the way things work.”
If things worked in real life the way things work on film, Jamie Hinson and Binh Nguyen would be co-starring in a no-budget action flick: Mosquito Hunters.
Hinson, 23, is as blonde and perky as you expect a native of Long Island’s north shore to be. In wraparound Oakleys and yellow-and-blue uniform T-shirt, she suggests a Special Ops supermodel, sans M4 and body armor.
A prosperously stocky 38, Nguyen still radiates the vitality that propelled him from a fatherless childhood in wartime Vietnam to a municipal job, ownership of nail and hair salons, and a home in the suburbs.
Hinson and Nguyen work for the D.C. Department of Health, which has been on the West Nile and Asian tiger case since 1999, when it established its West Nile office. The timing isn’t clear, but en route to or after reaching D.C., A. albopictus acquired the ability to carry West Nile virus. This made the tiger not merely an annoyance, but a potential killer, and spurred the Department of Health to target virus as well as vectors, which is the bread-and-butter work of Hinson, Nguyen, and their colleagues at the West Nile and Vector Control office.
Besides enforcing anti-mosquito laws that prescribe fines for failing to clear overgrowth and eliminate breeding sites, such as birdbaths, the unit monitors most anything nonhuman that bites in D.C.: dogs, cats, you name it. And in warm weather, the city’s worries turn to mosquito bites. Since April 1, the office has fielded 300 some calls, mostly about dead birds, standing water, and mosquito swarms, but also from pet owners; besides West Nile, mosquitoes also carry heartworm.
Biologist Hinson came to work at Vector Control in 2002, a year later becoming West Nile coordinator. “We have a much stronger grasp now on what’s going on in D.C. regarding West Nile virus,” she says. “We went from a haphazard program that was following the CDC model without knowing why to a mature approach.”
That approach begins on a city map speckled with orange-headed pins. The pins mark a D.C.-wide grid—the core of Washington’s war on the Asian tiger mosquito and its ilk. Unlike Maryland and Virginia, which spray pesticide to kill ’skeeters, D.C. uses larvicide, poisoning wrigglers in the water. To know where to do the business, crews must know where mosquitoes are doing business.
Each pin indicates a mosquito trap maintained by the city, the National Zoo, the National Park Service, or the Department of Defense. The mosquito census directs Vector Control’s larvicide attacks. “When the mosquito numbers go up, we put out more traps and larvicide in the eight-square-block area around a trap location,” says Hinson.
Traps can occupy public land with no one’s say-so; on private property, owners must give the go-ahead. It’s not a hard sell. “People want traps,” Hinson says. “It makes them feel protected, even when we tell them a trap won’t bring down the mosquito population.”
That lesson is in evidence at a crisply maintained yard on Oglethorpe Street NW, where the mosquito squad interrupts retired government personnel manager John Florence watering his grass. Hinson, Nguyen, and boss Peggy Keller have arrived to empty the trap under my gaze.
“Hope you don’t find any mosquitoes,” says Florence.
No such luck. The trap, a “gravid” model named for its target—egg-laden females—sits in a flower bed, looking like a DEET ad. It’s full, but not full enough to satisfy Florence. “I’ve lived here for 39 years,” says the Toledo, Ohio, native. “The mosquitoes are pretty bad, and they’re getting worse.”
The net holds about 100 prisoners. Hinson makes quick work of switching the white netting that holds the insects, swapping out the battery that powers the fan that sucks in the ’skeeters, and reloading the trap with a slurry of water and rabbit feed that, though humanly pukelicious, is music to a mosquito’s olfactory system.
Bidding Florence farewell, the crew heads for 4th and Rittenhouse Streets NW. Last year, the city demolished an abandoned house here, leaving an empty, much-puddled lot and a mosquito plague. A neighbor complained; city crews filled holes, laid down larvicide, and installed a trap beneath a venerable holly tree that Nguyen now checks. The situation seems copacetic. “Before, you couldn’t even go in there, there were so many mosquitoes,” says Nguyen as he resets and re-baits.
The neighbor who grouched declines to give her name, but she does give Vector Control all props. “They did a good job,” she says. “Got right on it. When they finally came, they covered the holes and filled them in, and put the larvicide in the sewer. I’m happy to have that trap in my yard. There’s fewer mosquitoes now.”
That’s the principle. The more small containers, the more aëdes; the fewer containers, the fewer aëdes. There’s no register of hot spots, but it’s safe to say upper Northwest is Skeeter Central. Hinson recalls a grand-sounding woman who phoned for help.
“She had a beautiful yard, lots of flowerpots, all with water in the drip trays—but she couldn’t understand her mosquito problem,” Hinson says, adopting a Margaret Dumont voice. “‘I take such good care of my yard, I don’t see why I have so many mosquitoes.’ If you have water, you have larvae. If your water’s been stagnant for five to seven days, the larvae are active. I tell people to check for standing water every three days.”
Besides monitoring, trapping, and larviciding, Hinson’s unit has managed a mosquito-larvae survey of D.C. cemeteries. In case you were wondering: Lots of larvae live in cemeteries. This and other tiles of the mosquito mosaic appear at http://dchealth.dc.gov/information/ fact_sheets/westnilevirus.shtm.
Not every Washingtonian is Web-ready, so Keller and her cohorts conduct outreach in person. “We go door to door, put literature at libraries and senior-citizen centers, attend community meetings. We talk to callers to resolve problems,” says Keller. “We’re the only jurisdiction that doesn’t spray but relies on larvicide; if you larvicide effectively, you don’t have to spray, and we have the statistics to prove it.”
D.C.’s larvicide is BTI, short for bacillus thuringiensis israeliensis—an organic toxin deadly to fly larvae and packaged in pellets or doughnuttish cakes. Another popular mosquito bane, methoprene, is a growth regulator that keeps larvae fatally young; before they can bite, they croak.
Nontoxic to other species, these formulations have replaced the old ways of the old days, when municipal workers fogged neighborhoods with brain-bending malathion to kill adult mosquitoes or pumped motor oil into storm drains to gag larvae.
Last year, the city spewed 3,500 BTI cakes; so far this year, the tally is 1,700. Besides using trap data, crews patrol for standing water. They don’t find any behind 729 Tuckerman St. NW, but they do find Thelma Temple standing on her porch, overlooking the mosquito trap in her garage well.
The retired Bureau of Engraving worker frets less about mosquitoes than about cats; a feral pack roams her property. “These cats are all over the porch,” says Temple. “One got into my house and tore me up. I called the animal place because there were five cats living on my front porch. Yes, I was feeding ’em, but I didn’t want ’em living there.”
Promising Temple help with her furry freeloaders, the team scoops up an ailing kitten and resets the mosquito trap. “I like the work,” says Hinson. “You interact with people. You’re outside. You can talk to people and help them, sometimes with mosquitoes, sometimes with other things, like these feral cats.”
So it goes for Hinson and Nguyen and their co-workers the six months or so that mosquito season lasts: setting and emptying traps, counting ’skeeters, strewing larvicide, helping residents help themselves evade Asian tigers and West Nile. D.C. will never be mosquito-free, but at least it offers the comfort of finitude. A city as compact as the capital can pinpoint its worst spots, giving its mosquito fighters a fighting chance. It could be worse.
They could have Jeannine Dorothy’s job.
Dorothy’s beat—she manages mosquito control for the state of Maryland in Prince George’s, Montgomery, and Howard Counties—is effectively infinite. She has to choose her battles, on the basis of bulletins from citizens.
“In May, a guy from College Park called wanting help,” says Dorothy. “He had Asian tigers on his property like crazy, and he and his neighbors were going crazy from all the bites. I told him about the usual places to look, but he wanted me to come out. We don’t usually do house inspections, but I said if he’d organize six or eight neighbors so I could talk to all of them, I’d come. He got 10 people. As we walked around they’d be saying, ‘Oh, my God! There are larvae in my yard!’
“Well, there are at least three places where there are larvae in everybody’s yard. And there were a lot of mosquitoes in those yards. So I did my little spiel and told people what to do, which is to check and clean up your yard diligently every two weeks. They listened and took notes and I went away. I called him back later to ask if he wanted us to spray, and he said, ‘You don’t have to. There are no mosquitoes.’
“We checked, and there weren’t,” Dorothy says, surprise still in her tone. “Those people had gone through the checklist and found every spot where tigers breed, and they kept at it and they got rid of them. Cleaning up one yard doesn’t make a difference, but cleaning up eight or 10 yards does. You’re gonna have a few tigers at the edges, but in the middle of that cleaned-up area, there won’t be any.”
Dorothy’s outfit used to use gravid traps, but it dropped them in favor of Fay-Princes and the CDC light—the former luring mosquitoes with dry-ice vapor, the latter seducing them with a gleam—because they stink less.
The more mosquitoes a Maryland trap catches, the more quickly Dorothy can dispatch a spray rig. The current spray threshold is 10 mosquitoes per trap per night. The limit used to be 25, but the state wants to shrink mosquito populations in areas, such as Prince George’s, where the insects can carry West Nile. “There doesn’t have to be a very large population of mosquitoes to transmit,” Dorothy says.
Maryland isn’t going broke fighting mosquitoes. The state underwrites half of each county’s outlay, with counties, municipalities, and even civic associations expected to cover their shares of the rest. This year, the state’s share in Prince George’s is around $100,000, with Howard and Montgomery getting $25,000 to $50,000 each.
Dorothy says one thing she likes about her job is that she can make a difference in people’s lives, especially in relation to the Asian tiger mosquito.
“The tiger mosquito has been in Maryland since ’87,” she says. “They’re prodigious breeders. A friend of mine in South Carolina once counted seven tiger larvae in a bottle cap. I tell people to turn over containers once a week; in the average yard, I can usually find eight to 15 places with larvae in them. Everybody says, “Oh, no. I’m not breeding them.’ I say, ‘Yes, you are, and I bet I can find them.’”
Near the U.S. Department of Agriculture farms in Beltsville, Dorothy finds tiger-mosquito heaven. Surrounding a Fay-Prince hung on a willow oak are hundreds of trash tires. A guy gets off the front-end loader he’s working on. He’s Paul Da Silva, owner of the construction company occupying this patch of land beloved of illegal dumpers. “I’ve been here five years, and they keep coming,” he says.
After Dorothy promises to nag the state enviro folks to remove the old tires, we head to Cheverly’s public-works yard, where Dorothy’s team has placed a trap. The setup looks like someone’s lynched an insulated jug; it dangles from a fence, bottom drilled to let the CO2 drool past the trap’s mouth. As she works, Dorothy riffs on the tools of her trade. She likes BTI, which she says works well against aëdes, but not culex. Methoprene rules; no species survives it. The CDC lights go to the same locations repeatedly; Fay-Princes go in for a day to gauge mosquito populations in areas that haven’t been on the radar screen.
At a complex called Prince Georgetown, Dorothy checks a CDC light trap. “We’ll spray here tonight,” she says, squint-counting at least 10 mosquitoes. “It’s hard to see them in the bag. I could tell the species better before I turned 42.”
Like D.C.’s anti-mosquito cadre, Dorothy does a lot of meeting and greeting. A favorite effort schooled elementary educators so they could ’skeeterize their science curricula. “We took them on field trips, taught them how to dip larvae, showed them how to set up displays so the kids could watch the eggs hatch and the mosquitoes develop,” Dorothy says. “That was a lot of fun, and they loved it.”
At Dorothy’s College Park office, a technician is sorting mosquitoes, mostly tigers. She invites me to glom a male and a female through the microscope. I’ve been wallowing in tiger mosquitoes for weeks, even letting them bite me, but this is my first time seeing one larger than life.
The female A. albopictus is larger and leaner than her dead consort. Her proboscis looks lethal—I let something stick that into my arm?—and her antennae resemble an old Christmas tree, nothing but skinny branches. In contrast, his feelers are furry and thick, like a Welsh labor leader’s eyebrows. The scales covering their corpses have an alluring obsidian gleam.
What to the naked eye seem like high-contrast markings turn out under a lens to be interwoven whites, silvers, and blacks, a subtle pattern that gets more complex the longer I contemplate it, as if by staring at dead mosquitoes I could figure out something very important about them.
Perhaps the most important thing to figure out about mosquitoes is the lesson of The Hellstrom Chronicle: There are more of them than there are of us—there always have been, and there always will be. As Michael Lenehan observed in “Notes of a Mosquito Hunter,” a prescient June 1983 article in the Atlantic, an acre of Tennessee ground in the grip of summer’s cauldron was found to boil up as many as 14,750 hungry female mosquitoes.
With numbers like that, aëdes and culex and anopheles and the rest are always going to outpoll humans. No municipality, no matter how energetic its efforts, no matter how advanced its equipment, no matter how diligent its worker bees, can beat the bite.
But it’s possible to fight the Asian tiger and the rest on your own.
At a friend’s urging, South Arlington resident Pat Cooper outfitted her 4,500-square-foot back yard with a mosquito trap. “We weren’t up to our elbows in mosquitoes, but it was uncomfortable to be outside at 6 or 7 o’clock,” she says. “I didn’t want my small child covered in bites.”
The traps—Cooper uses a Mosquito Magnet, which ranges in price from $595 to more than $1,000—burn propane, blending carbon dioxide and chemical lure to entice mosquitoes onto a one-way trip to Palookaville. Cooper has used the gizmos—she’s graduated through several—since 2001. She gives her device, which burns $125 a season in propane and lure, a mixed review.
The Mosquito Magnet isn’t for the technologically challenged. “It’s not idiot-proof. It requires all kinds of troubleshooting,” says Cooper. “The manufacturer sent out these little tool kits to use in cleaning the passageways. They’re trying to do the right thing. The technical-support staff is very helpful. You have to read the directions and be somewhat mechanically minded to get the most out of it. I’ve taken mine apart and put it back together three times.”
Mosquito Magnets also trap a dispiritingly small volume of predators. “The first time I looked in the capture bag, it was a real letdown,” says Cooper. “The dead bodies don’t add up as fast as you’d like.”
However, when Cooper’s trap works, it works well. “We have a stockade fence around the back yard; the trap doesn’t work over heights, but it seems that mosquitoes don’t fly that high, either,” she says. “After running it for six to eight weeks, we don’t see any mosquitoes in the back yard. And we notice a marked difference in mosquito volume between our front and back yards—on the front porch, we have a real collection of mosquitoes, and I know, because mosquitoes find me very attractive.”
Personal mosquito traps like the one Cooper grudgingly maintains may become the way of the future, as households that can afford them assume responsibility for vector control, at least in the back yard. Intensified and improved municipal monitoring may help larvicide and spray programs prevent the area’s mosquito populations from achieving Hellstrom-like preponderance. DEET may make life sweet, at least long enough to dart out and hose down the garden before the Asian tigers are the wiser.
Even so, we have to consider the possibility of a new fresh mosquito-laden hell. Maybe not this year, or the next, or the one after that, but someday we may find ourselves reminiscing about those halcyon times when all we had to fret about on a summer’s evening was good old Aëdes albopictus.
There’s a new mosquito buzzing among us. It breeds in containers. Its larvae can survive the American winter. It can fly a mile, it bites all day, and it feeds on humans.
And it carries West Nile virus.
Native to Japan, South China, Taiwan, Korea, and Hong Kong, Ochlerotatus japonicus showed up in the United States somehow, sometime in the ’90s. It was officially recorded in New Jersey in 1999; by 2004, 18 other states had reported it.
“It’s moved pretty rapidly through Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia,” says Army entomologist Pagac. “It also has been reported in Georgia, and it’s pretty well-established in West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky.”
In regions such as southeastern Pennsylvania, which the Asian tiger had come to dominate, Pagac says, he and his colleagues have documented a three-year progression: first only albopictus, then a mix of albopictus and japonicus, then only japonicus.
In other words, meet the new boss, as bad as, if not worse than, the old boss.
Others may reach for the trap catalog and the Off, but Pagac takes the long and scientific view.
“When you start charting this information over time, you see a newcomer come in, and how it moves. And you see that it’s not so unique or surprising for a species to come in. There is always a potential for other things to pop up,” he says. “I see these patterns as a reflection of the world we live in, an indication of how small the world is in terms of the global economy and travel, and how these factors just make the world smaller.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Charles Steck.