Blood Sisters

Playing the role of both predator and prey in the cycle of life.

Photo by Adobe Stock/Auimeesri.

Walking in the New Hampshire woods, I mark my trail with eau de DEET. Chickadees twitter judgmentally in the hemlocks: “She’s wearing the CDC-recommended, permethrin-impregnated long sleeves and pants despite 80-degree heat,” I hear in their chirps. They’re right. I dress defensively to mitigate the risks of disease that a mosquito bite could transmit. Although malaria is now very rare in the U.S. (about 1,700 cases are diagnosed here each year, compared with 216 million cases worldwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and yellow fever is present only in Africa and South America, there are a number of serious mosquito-borne diseases to guard against here. West Nile virus has taken up residence in the Northeast, and cases of Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) in humans or animals appear in local headlines every summer. Though Zika has no foothold, its appearance in other parts of the United States and the special danger it poses to fetal brain development have raised alarms.

This fear is new to me. My early relationship with mosquitoes lacked antagonism. Bites were merely an itchy inconvenience, relieved by my mother’s magical pale peach-tinted calamine lotion. My curious 10-year-old self happily spared a meal for the female mosquito so that I might watch her up close. We became blood sisters when she took some of mine and regurgitated her blend. I unwittingly aided her by constructing dams of leaves and sticks along the stream behind my house. Now, more aware of mosquitoes’ potential to carry and spread disease, I am a conscientious homeowner overturning any object that could collect water and form mosquito habitat.

To keep from scaring myself indoors forever, I review—and take some solace—in the facts about my insect foe. A mosquito’s bite is complicated. Her elongated mouthparts pierce like a dagger and grope below the skin until they hit upon a narrow capillary from which to sip. Then she salivates anticoagulant to quicken the blood flow. It is not a large donation we provide her; the blood meal of one mosquito is nearly imperceptible at less than 0.01 milliliter. A pint of blood would feed approximately 47,000 mosquitoes.

Next, I consider potential defenses. Birds and bats eat insects, and I think about my additions to the farm: boxes where bluebirds and tree swallows vie for nest space, eaves of the barn for phoebe nests, and bat houses nailed to the south face of large pines. I want to learn more about the role that our local insectivorous birds play in controlling mosquito populations. I run my finger past my new copy of The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America. Sibley’s colorful illustrations and phonetic birdcalls are scientifically accurate, but not much fun. I move on to my turn-of-the-century nature books in search of ancient solutions for modern mosquito woes.

The old guides seem more authoritative; more importantly, the accounts of birds are engaging, more literary. I pick up Birds of America (1917) and start reading a passage structured like a novella about a “petulant” phoebe and an “affectionate” bluebird. Anthropomorphic tales are broken up by facts, too. From the study of bird stomach contents, I learn that although the two-toned phoebe and the unusually social purple martin eat mosquitoes, they do not do so in numbers great enough for them to be my primary defense.

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