Blood Sisters

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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.

I return Birds of America to the shelf and see another promising resource, my 1918 edition of The Field Book of Insects by Frank Lutz. Like that of his bird-studying colleagues, Lutz’s writing shows his enchantment with insects. His description of the mosquito as “long-legged, fragile-winged, dainty-waisted” seems more like the characterization of a ballroom dancer than an insect. Lutz continues in this section with a plea for humans to preserve mosquito habitat so that we might continue to appreciate their special adaptations. Is it possible Lutz’s hubris led to his untimely end? I imagine his final moments could have been on a narrow cot in a poorly supplied hospital outpost, where he languished in a malarial fever. It turns out that Lutz did not die from the touch of an insect, and I mutter to myself that I probably won’t, either.

I consider historical context. I am lucky that the United States has prevailed over several deadly mosquito diseases that much of the world still suffers from. Centralized infrastructure allows us to respond rapidly to outbreaks, as we have done in recent years with Zika. We fund research for mosquito control, vaccines, and treatments for infection. But I cringe as my eyes pass over my copy of Silent Spring.

Maybe estimating my risk of infection could soothe jittery nerves. My equation requires the number of cases of West Nile or EEE in my home state of New Hampshire (on average, a few per year) divided by the number of bites I figure each of the more than 1.3 million people who live in the state receive in a summer. The math is immediately reassuring: I likely will lose the mosquito lottery.

To consider this risk in another context: Braving a walk in the woods is much, much safer than driving a car. I never hesitate to buckle myself in and make an angst-free turn into traffic. Should my outdoor excursions, with all their benefits, be treated differently? The best I can conclude is that even though the risk is not zero, I will probably be OK. I reshelve Lutz’s book, turn off my computer, and crumple the paper evidence of my deranged calculations.

Looking through my window, I consider the circumstances. Dry August weather means mosquito mothers will be uncommon in the woods. Flocks of dazzlingly colored goldfinches, newly fledged phoebes, and skittish yet curious chipmunks compete for my attention. It’s a spectacular summer day, and so I step away from my desk and head outdoors. I wander out of the glaring, sunlit yard to the cool shaded path behind my house. Despite previous promises of caution, I shirk netted headgear and forgo mists of chemicals; I rationalize that the liberal application of repellents carries its own risk.

I have not gone far before I feel the distinctive pinch on my bare arm. A devoted mosquito had been waiting for a meal, and it ended up being from me. A swift swat ends her sucking. My skin welts up at the location of her bite. Had she recently bitten a bird or horse, the potential sources for infection? Had she come from the one infected pool out of three thousand I had read about?

As I look at the darkening smear of blood, I feel something other than anxiety. I sense that I am a part of the cycle of life. I am just like the daring chipmunk: prey. I am also like a phoebe: a predator. A fawn has camouflage spots; a viceroy uses deceptive mimicry; I can deploy a force-field of scented repellents and disappear behind a jaunty mosquito-netted hat.

I see that my current adversarial relationship with mosquitoes is in truth a relatively un-dramatic scene in a three-act play. We both go about our days; she ready to ambush me for her next meal, I shoring up my defenses. Two living beings, feeding and protecting ourselves and our families. With this thought, we become stronger, truer blood sisters. 

Jennifer Wise works as a physician and lives with her husband in southern New Hampshire. In her free time, she enjoys exploring and photographing nature, in addition to writing, gardening, and tending to her flock of layer hens. Reprinted from Northern Woodlands (Summer 2018), a publication of the Center for Northern Woodlands Education with the mission to advance a culture of forest stewardship in the Northeast and to increase understanding of and appreciation for the natural wonders, economic productivity, and ecological integrity of the region’s forests.

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