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14 december 2012

I'm not much bothered by mosquitoes at the age of 53, but they were a significant bane of my childhood (much of it spent in marshy, sea-level New Jersey, where the "Jersey Devil" of legend is said by some to be just an oversized mosquito). As Richard Jones points out in Mosquito, though, mosquitoes are even worse in lands of long winters. The absolute worst mosquito experience of my life was undergone overnight in a tent in St. Ignace, Michigan, 35 years ago. I came out of the tent in the morning pebbled with hives, and spent the day as one continuous itch till I could dunk myself into a tub of icewater that evening.

Not long since, in ecohistorical terms, temperate North American mosquitoes were more than itchy annoyances. Malaria flourished in the U.S. till the further reaches of even today's living memory. It continues to kill appalling numbers of people every year. The fight against malaria, as Jones shows, is slow work, with many advances and retreats. Mosquito-borne diseases aren't directly caused by mosquitoes, of course, and malaria in particular can't be reliably eradicated just by killing lots of mosquitoes. Nor does the presence of myriad mosquitoes signal danger. The life-cycle of the plasmodium parasite which causes the infection depends on taking up residence in both humans and mosquitoes, and shuttling back and forth. (It isn't great for the mosquito either: one can imagine a world of sentient mosquitoes who decide to wipe out human populations to rid themselves of malaria.) So to stamp out malaria, one needs to suppress mosquito populations long enough that the parasite populations die out, failing to make their predictable trip from human to fly to human. It's tricky business that requires patience, timing, and thoroughness.

Mass spraying of pesticides, as practiced in Texas recently for fear of the West Nile virus, is one of the less effective methods of stopping mosquito-carried disease, particularly since it brings noxious side effects to humans and innocent animals of all kinds. But it's cheap, obvious, and it looks like action, whereas vigilant suppression of breeding habitats is a more sure but longer-haul activity.

Mosquitoes don't have a lot of presence in art or literature. Jones tries to do some of the usual Reaktion Animal art history and folklore. But aside from huge mosquito sculptures that flourish here and there in a show of northwoods bravado, there isn't really much human culture that celebrates the mosquito. I'm tempted to pitch a big art exhibit to St. Ignace, but I doubt they really want to kickstart their tourist industry with some kind of Mosquito Fest. That's the kind of stuff we do in Texas.

Jones, Richard. Mosquito. London: Reaktion, 2012.