Mosquitoes. It wouldn’t be a summer on the Prairies without them.
Unfortunately, with mosquitoes, comes West Nile Virus, which is carried by the Culex tarsalis mosquito. (There are 3,000 different types of mosquitoes, and the Prairies have about 40 of them).
Our local municipalities trap mosquitoes and monitor for the virus. How much of it is going around in any one year depends on weather conditions, as well as how many mosquitoes are carrying the virus.
Unfortunately, this year, West Nile was detected in mosquitoes in the Rural Municipality of Headingly, which is just outside Winnipeg.
However, the Manitoba government says the risk of exposure to West Nile Virus is currently low, but the possibility of exposure could increase in the coming weeks.
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West Nile symptoms
While most people infected with West Nile develop mild or no symptom, approximately 20 per cent of people who get the virus develop a fever, headaches, body aches, joint pains, vomiting, diarrhea, or a rash.
Most people with this type of illness recover completely. Fatigue and weakness can last for weeks or months though.
The unlucky few, less than one per cent of the population, get it the worst. For them, West Nile can cause encephalitis or meningitis (inflammation of the brain).
This serious type of illness is called WNV neuroinvasive disease and symptoms include headache, high fever, neck stiffness, disorientation, coma, tremors, seizures, or paralysis.
Recovery from severe disease may take several weeks or months. And some of the neurologic effects may be permanent. About 10 per cent of people who develop neurologic infection due to WNV will die.
West Nile by the numbers
The good news is the risk of West Nile has substantially declined since 2007, according to the Saskatchewan government.
In 2021, there was only one case of human neuroinvasive disease case and no one has died of West Nile Virus in Saskatchewan since 2018.
Meanwhile, Manitoba has had 45 cases of West Nile between 2017 and 2021. Only nine of those people were hospitalized and four required intensive care.
So far, there have been no confirmed human cases of West Nile in Manitoba and Saskatchewan this year.
I remember working at the Regina Leader-Post in 2003 when the first human case of West Nile was identified in Saskatchewan, so the disease hasn’t been around for that long on the Prairies.
However, West Nile Virus itself was first identified in humans in 1937 in Uganda and has since spread around the world.
Back in 2003, West Nile was quite scary. About 142 Manitobans were infected with the virus that year—35 became seriously ill and two people died. In Saskatchewan, 12 people died that year.
There currently is no vaccine for West Nile Virus. They say the best way to avoid it is to not get bitten by a mosquito, which is easier said then done.
I don’t think a summer has gone by where I haven’t been bitten by a mosquito or 100 of them.
Managing mosquito populations
The municipalities do their best to control the mosquito populations; and how they manage them varies
In Winnipeg, for instance, they have staff working around the clock, on foot and in the air, seven days a week, deploying larvicide on 5,000 known standing bodies of water sites that cover 20,000 hectares of the city.
There can be as many as 80 workers out in the field at any given time, including overnight.
Winnipeg uses two different types of larvicides.
One is bacterial, called Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis, which damages the insides of mosquito larvae and other aquatic organisms, including blackfly larvae, so they cannot feed.
The chemical larvicide is methoprene, which mimics the hormones present in juvenile insects and prevents the larve from becoming adults.
Winnipeg does not fog until it experiences two straight days with a city-wide trap count of 25 or more and at least one quadrant of the city with a trap count of 100 or more.
The city has been using the fog deltamethrin, a synthetic version of pyrethroid insecticides that are naturally present in chrysanthemum plants, since 2019, which kills all insects, not just mosquitoes.
Regina, on the other hand, doesn’t fog and never has because, again, the fog kills all insects, even the beneficial ones.
Instead, the city uses a larvicide called Vectobac, which targets mosquitoes and is harmless to animals and humans.
But other communities in Saskatchewan, like Shaunavon, choose to fog.
Mosquitoes prefer a certain type of person
It is true that mosquitoes do like some people more than others. It depends on how much you sweat, and if your sweat produces a lot of lactic acid, which vaporizes into the air.
Studies show mosquitoes love lactic acid. How much lactic acid you produce really comes down to genetics and the microbiome that exists on your skin.
If you’re exercising and sweating profusely outside, you might find yourself being bitten more.
Apparently, alcohol also attracts more mosquitoes to you.
But it’s not the sweat or the alcohol that first draws mosquitoes in. It’s the carbon dioxide that we exhale that help them locate us; the smell of sweat is what tells them we are alive and full of blood.
Mosquitoes are also more drawn to dark colours, specifically black, blue and red because their eyes look for areas of high contrast when trying to find a place to land.
So, wearing lighter clothes and abstaining from alcohol can help reduce the number of mosquitoes from landing on you.
Mosquito repellent also helps.
How mosquitoes suck your blood
Aside from being annoying, and potentially deadly, mosquitoes themselves are quite interesting.
It’s the female mosquitoes that are the bloodsuckers. They need the protein and iron in blood to produce eggs. (The males only drink plant nectar and help pollinate flowers).
The females have tube-like mouthparts, called a proboscis, which they first use as a shock absorber when they land on us.
Then this proboscis opens into six parts.
I like to think of its mouth as a jackknife—as there are two sawblade-like limbs that cut through our skin.
And then there are another two limbs from the proboscis that hold our skin open.
A fourth limb, which acts like a straw, digs around under our skin, looking for a blood vessel to tap.
Another part of its proboscis is a needle that fills us with its saliva, which numbs our skin and makes our blood flow better.
Our skin reacts with this saliva, which is why we get an itchy welt after being bitten.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, as the mosquito drinks our blood, it separates out the water, and basically urinates it onto us as it drinks.
This whole feeding process has been captured on video.
How mosquitoes breed
When it comes to breeding, some types of male mosquitoes do mating dances, while other males fight over females.
Ultimately, though females and males adjust their wing beats to try to converge on a harmony. If the female likes what she hears from the male, they mate.
Mosquitoes lay eggs on top of bodies of stagnant water, which is why you should regularly dump any containers in your yard. But it doesn’t take much water to create a breeding ground. A piece of trash or the cup of a flower can hold enough water to spawn mosquitoes.
The mosquito life cycle
Female mosquitos fly over the water, bobbing up and down, dropping cigar-shaped eggs on the surface.
When the eggs hatch, out come larvae, which swim around and eat with tiny little brushes in their mouths that help them draw in algae and other food.
They breath oxygen by going to the surface and pointing their butts in the air, as there is a siphon on a larva’s bottom that has five flaps they can squeeze shut while under water to keep them from drowning.
These larvae grow and molt four times, kind of like a snake shedding its skin, but the mosquito larvae are shedding their exoskeletons.
After the fourth time, they emerge as a pupa. This is similar to the chrysalis stage in a butterfly’s development.
The mosquito “chrysalis” is shaped like a shrimp. The breathing siphon is replaced by these trumpets, which look like ears on the pupa.
When the adult is fully formed, the pupa will split open, and the mosquito will surface and dry off before taking flight.
Mosquito wings make a twisting motion that create pockets of swirling air to support the mosquito’s weight.
Mosquitoes have two antennae, which are believed to sense changes in airflow around their body, which allows them to navigate in the dark.
Going from egg to adult can take from five to 14 days, depending on the type of mosquito.
Unless it’s winter, which literally freezes the life cycle.
Larvae freeze into solid lumps of ice over winter and complete their development in spring.
Mosquito eggs can dry out, and hatch later when they are covered by water.
Some adult mosquitos can even survive the winter in a state of diapause.
Adult mosquitoes usually mate within a few days after emerging from the pupal stage, usually at dusk.
If you walk into a swarm of mosquitoes in the early evening, you have basically just crossed through a mosquito-breeding ground.
Adult mosquitoes survive for about a week. Ten days if they are lucky.
When we’re bitten, most of us get an itchy rash, but some people have it worse. They suffer what is called Skeeter Syndrome, where the bites swell up into huge welts; some are so huge they have a 20-centimetre diameter.
Treating mosquito bites
The best way to treat mosquito bites is with calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream. A cold compress can also help reduce the swelling.
Mosquitoes are a type of fly
Mosquitoes belong to the fly family. In fact, the word “mosquito” is Spanish and Portuguese for “little fly.”
The mosquito origin story
First Nations living along the Red River in Manitoba have a story about a famine hundreds of years ago.
Back then, two hunters came upon a white wolverine, which they killed. And an old woman jumped out of its skin named “Manito.”
She promised the men plenty of game to hunt if they treated her well.
The famine passed, but the people began not to like the old woman because she always took the best pieces of meat for herself. And, so, despite her warning that a great disaster would strike if they killed her, they decided to kill her.
Time passed without any trouble, and the people began to believe the old woman lied about the curse. But, years later, a hunting party came across her old skeleton, and one of them kicked her skull with contempt.
This caused a small spiral of vapour to arise, which attacked the hunters.
They ran to the river for safety as the air continued to fill with little avengers of the old woman’s death—mosquitoes, who continue to punish people to this day for her death.
Mosquitoes in history
If it wasn’t for the chemical and biological warfare that our municipalities wage against the mosquitoes, they would be pretty bad.
In fact, the horridness of Manitoba’s mosquitoes from before this time has been recorded in history books, so to speak.
In his journal, Alexander Henry, a fur trader with the North West Company, wrote the weather was fine on July 9, 1814 near Shoal Lake, but “the mosquitoes tormented us as usual. Our horses which had little rest last night, were almost ungovernable, tearing up the grasses, throwing their fore feet over their heads to drive away the insects, and biting their sides till our legs were in danger of their teeth. In a word the poor tortured and enraged beasts often attempted to throw themselves down and roll in the water. We also suffered intolerably, being almost prevented from breathing.”
Rev. George Young, who established a mission church in 1871 in Winnipeg, said the local mosquitoes were so big that many of them weighed a pound.
Henri Julien, a 21-year-old illustrator documenting the march west of the North West Mounted Police in 1874, described the Manitoba mosquito as the worst species of insect in the world.
“They insinuate themselves under your clothes, down your shirt collar, up your sleeve cuffs between the buttons of your shirt bosom. And not one or a dozen, but millions at a time.”
Alexander Morris, a former lieutenant-governor of Manitoba, described a 1876 trip he made to the Long Plain on the Assiniboine River near present-day Portage la Prairie, where he was involved in early treaty negotiations with first nations, writing: “Owing to the prevalence of heavy rain the roads were in such bad conditions that I was four days in reaching the Long Plain … Added to my other discomforts was the presence of mosquitoes in incredible numbers, so that journey and sojourn at the Plain were anything but pleasurable.”
Francis Bodnar, who moved to Gimli with her husband, wrote: “As our windows did not have good screens, they would get into the house. We used to make one smudge for our animals and another around the house for ourselves, but in spite of this the mosquitoes would get into the house in such numbers that it was impossible to sleep. The baby suffered the most.”
She and her husband killed as many as they could with rolled up newspapers.
“In the morning we realized that we had created another problem; the mosquitoes having filled themselves with the blood of the poor animals, left the gore on the walls and as a consequence I had to whitewash the interior of our house.”
The biggest mosquito in present day Manitoba is in the community of Komarno.
The name means “mosquito-infested” in Ukrainian, and that community has a giant mosquito statue as its roadside attraction, as the people there are proud to be known as the Mosquito Capital of the World.
Mosquito risks abroad
If you’re travelling overseas, be sure to visit a travel clinic, pharmacy or public health before you go to find out what mosquito-borne diseases await you at your destination, as sometimes you might need a vaccine or medication to help prevent serious illness.
At the very least, bring bug spray.
I went to Cuba in 2019, and forgot to bring bug spray, and was the popular choice amongst the mosquitoes. I was bitten repeatedly while my travel mates were fine, so I must have produced the most lactic acid in the group.
Cuba has some mosquitoes that carry Zika Virus, which is generally only a problem if you’re pregnant, as it can cause birth defects.
It is very possible I contracted Zika Virus in Cuba and didn’t know it, as the virus for most people causes no symptoms and generally only lasts for about a week.
In other parts of the world, mosquitoes carry much more serious disease.
If you go to Africa, some countries won’t let you in unless you can prove you’ve been vaccinated for Yellow Fever, a virus that can be quite deadly.
Mosquitoes in some parts of the world can also carry malaria, which kills 400,000 people a year. So usually if you are travelling to one of these countries, it’s usually recommended you take a preventative medication for that disease.
Mosquitoes also carry dengue fever, Lymphatic filariasis and Chikungunya Virus.
Because of all this disease they carry, mosquitoes are the deadliest creatures in the world and kill more humans in any given year than sharks. They even kill more humans than humans kill humans.
Mosquitoes kill in the ballpark of a million people a year, whereas sharks, in a good year, will kill about 10.
And despite all the war and murder going on in the world, people only manage to kill about a half million of their fellow man each year.
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