I was warned there would be a lot of mosquitoes when I traveled to the northern coast of Alaska to collect soil samples, but nothing could prepare me for the swarms of bugs that darkened the sky above me as I worked. The pages of our field books were littered with insect corpses crushed whenever we closed them. Even though they couldn’t bite through my head net and spray, they still managed to make life pretty miserable. It’s no wonder they can drive caribou seeking relief, like billions of little sheep dogs, into new landscapes.
Relatively speaking, the Arctic gets off easy compared to other parts of the world. Since Arctic mosquitoes do not transmit any known diseases, the worst I could expect from a bite is a minor itch. For half of the world’s population, avoiding mosquito bites is a matter of life and death.
It is the mosquito’s ability to transmit diseases that has earned it the reputation of deadliest animal on earth—a statistic popularized by Bill Gates. Malaria alone infects more than 200 million people a year. Nearly half a million die. Besides malaria, mosquitoes are responsible for spreading dengue and yellow fever, encephalitis, filariasis, West Nile, and increasingly, Zika virus.
To make matters worse, human populations are increasing near mosquito habitats. Combine this with the ease of international travel, and we can expect rare and obscure diseases will continue to make news as they spread around the world.
It’s tempting to ask the extreme questions. BBC asked, “Would it be wrong to eradicate mosquitoes?” In June 2016, Smithsonian reported on new research considering gene editing technology that could, in theory, wipe out mosquitoes. “Should they use it?” it asked. Slate pulls no punches with their headline: “Let’s Kill All the Mosquitoes.” National Geographic was less dramatic but asked all the same, “Are Mosquitoes Necessary?”
In Christian circles, a similar sentiment can be expressed another way: Why did God create mosquitoes? Many of us don’t quite see the point of letting the little buggers live. In light of this challenge, what is our responsibility to mosquitoes, mankind, and the earth?
Mosquitoes are a victim, too
Mosquitoes live on flower nectar for most of their adult lives. Although this fuel of diluted sugars is readily available and a reasonably good source of energy, it is nutrient poor and lacking in protein. Still, nectar can power a male mosquito for his entire life. The same can’t be said for a female mosquito. To lay eggs, she needs a jolt of vitamins and protein that nectar can’t provide. Instead, she turns to an alternative energy source: us.
In many tropical regions, when a mosquito bites, she can give as well as receive. As she takes in blood, a mosquito may deposit parasites, viruses, or bacteria directly into our blood streams. Mosquitoes act as vectors when they transport these pathogenic organisms to an animal where they can grow or reproduce. Mosquitoes are unwittingly the carrier for disease, having no intention of ill will.
“One must remember that a mosquito is a victim of [Plasmodium parasites that cause malaria] just as we are. There is not any direct benefit known that mosquitoes draw from the parasite,” explained Francis Muregi, a Kenyan university lecturer and malaria researcher.
Additionally, not all mosquitoes are the same. Some mosquito species only bite amphibians, while others only bite reptiles. Some don’t bite anything, while others can lay one set of eggs from energy reserves but need to take a blood meal to lay additional broods. Still, there are plenty of species that will make use of birds and mammals to experience the miracle of motherhood. Not all mosquitoes deserve the blame as deadliest animal.