By Kate Crowley
There are so many wings in motion that you can hear them. They make an extremely annoying whining sound as they fly closer and closer, usually just as you’re falling asleep. Maybe we say it every year, but I bet you have said it more often or heard it this year. The mosquitoes are horrendous! I don’t think it’s an exaggeration really. For those of us living in rural areas they are an unpleasant fact of life in early summer (this is a big reason you won’t hear me or my husband complaining about winter). In the Twin Cities they institute spraying programs to try and control these annual pests, but that is impossible when you live surrounded by forests, ponds and assorted wetlands. Surprisingly, mosquitoes don’t breed in lakes.
This cool, late, wet spring/early summer has been ideal for the production of these insects. Every time it rains a new brood of mosquitoes is produced. They can go from egg to adult in as little time as one week. We all know that old tires are ideal breeding habitat, but so is almost any depression big enough to hold a cup of water. This includes cavities in stumps of trees. When they’re not flying around looking for food (blood for the female, nectar for the male), the mosquitoes are resting in the grass or on shrubs.
There are 50 species found in Minnesota; 28 of those bite humans. As a lifelong Minnesotan I have developed immunity to the itching caused by the chemical that is released through the mouthpart of the female when she pierces the skin. This chemical is designed to stop your blood from clotting, but it also causes the characteristic itching reaction. Apparently our genetics play a large role in our reaction to the bites, some of us being less susceptible than others.
There are many ways that mosquitoes can find us, but one is through the carbon dioxide we give off, as well as lactic acid that comes through our sweat. I have a theory that the greater a person’s agitation to mosquitoes, the greater an attraction they become. Think about it: If you start jumping around and waving your arms, you’re going to be creating more of both byproducts. I believe this is why people who come from other states or urban areas are so bothered by these bugs. I spent the past week with 20 Road Scholars – folks from as far away as Florida and California and many states in between and you can be sure they noticed and reacted to this year’s abundant mosquitoes. While some have mosquitoes where they live, none have ever experienced such an abundance as we currently have. For the most part all we can do is grit our teeth and cover our extremities until things dry out a bit. In the meantime, there is some good news found in just two words: dragonflies and monarchs.
In the last week both of these flying insects have appeared and they are worthy of celebration. Dragonflies look scary to many people, with their big, bulging eyes and multi-scaled bodies, but they have no stingers and I consider it sheer luck when one actually lands on me. Then I can study it closely and truly admire its diaphanous wings and colorful body parts. Another name for the dragonfly is ‘mosquito hawk’ and for good reason. These insects are predators and while they will eat midges and beetles, they also eat lots and lots of mosquitoes, both in the larval form (nymphs) and as adults. They can eat their own weight in food in half an hour. Obviously they don’t weigh much, so think of how many mosquitoes it would take to match the weight (and size) of a green darner dragonfly.
While flying, dragonflies use their six spiny legs as a type of scoop or net, gathering in their prey, which they then transfer to their mouths via the front legs. This is the true meaning of ‘eating on the go’.
Finally, in the past week, we have seen monarch butterflies. Not just one or two, but several, which after last year is worthy of great celebration. Granted, they don’t eat mosquitoes, but their continued survival and migration to our part of the country has come under question after a radical reduction in their numbers in 2013, due to a very late, cold spring in the south. It must have been better conditions this spring down in Texas where the first of the migrant monarchs stop to feed and lay eggs on milkweed plants. It is this next generation that comes to Minnesota. I have found more milkweeds growing in our fields this year and it is allowed to grow in my flower gardens as well. I want to do everything possible to help these magnificent black and orange wonders make it through another summer season and back to Mexico in the fall. Watching a monarch flit past is enough to cause you to forget for a moment or two, that ever present whining of this wet month.