No mere nuisance … mosquitoes
The great science writer Isaac Asimov was stumped by the mosquito. “Human beings can easily destroy every elephant on earth, but we are helpless against the mosquito,” he wrote. Indeed, the minuscule bloodsuckers kill hundreds of thousands of humans each year, earning the notorious distinction of being the deadliest animal in the world.
According to the WHO, more than half the world’s population lives in areas where Aedes aegypti, the yellow-fever mosquito, is present. Zika, dengue, chikungunya, West Nile virus: All begin with a bite from these tiny vampires. Others transmit elephantiasis, encephalitis, and malaria.
Humans haven’t mastered this species yet, but the methods we’re trying are increasingly innovative: Recent weapons range from new vaccines and bednets to emojis and David Beckham. Biologists are even debating whether they ought to deploy a new gene editing technology to rid the planet of mosquitoes altogether.
We’re taking a swat at the human race’s public enemy number one.
BY THE DIGITS
3,000: Number of known mosquito species
100: Number of species that prefer human blood. (Only female mosquitoes bite, males daintily feed on flower nectar.)
4.3 inches: Wingspan of the world’s largest mosquito, found in China
10,000: Number of mosquitoes that (fake) attacked David Beckham in a Ridley Scott-produced anti-malaria PSA for the “Malaria Must Die, So Millions Can Live” campaign
16: Number of LEGO pieces in the Insectoid mosquito mini-figure.
$12 billion: Annual economic cost of malaria in Africa
$5: Average cost of an insecticide-treated bed net
50: Percentage of sub-Saharan Africans that sleep under such nets
$5 billion: Projected size of the mosquito repellant market by 2022
There are many ways to kill a mosquito, but arguably the most satisfying method involves a racket with a small electric charge. The Executioner and similar swatters even light up when you zap a bloodsucker. If all you can do is swat with your hand, there’s some modest good news: scientists believe that even if a mosquito survives your slap, it’ll associate that with your smell and avoid you.
If you have a few thousand dollars to spare, Microsoft makes a trap that attracts bugs, scans them, and if they’re the right kind of mosquitoes, locks them up—with almost 90 percent accuracy. (The real audience is biologists. Not only can it save researchers the manual work of sorting through trapped bugs, it may help them track the spread of disease by catching transmitters.)
DEPARTMENT OF JARGON
Sixteenth century Spanish and Portuguese mariners came up with the name “mosquito,” according to The Mosquito Crusades. They combined “mosca” for “gnat” with “ito” meaning “little.” Aristotle referred to them “empis.” New nicknames emerged for the “little demons” over the years. There’s “mozzie” in New Zealand and Australia, and “skeeter” in the US. The French have had three monikers, “les maringouins,” “les moucherons” or “les cousins.”
Here’s how the rest of the world knows them:
- Afrikaans: muskiet
- Arabic: al-Ba’oudha
- Bosnian: komarac
- Chinese: wenzhi (蚊子)
- Danish: myg
- Dutch: muskieten
- Farsi: pashe
- Filipino: lamok
- Finnish: hyttynen
- French: moustique
- German: mücke
- Ghana: ntontont
- Greek: kounoupi; Aristotle called them “empis.”
- Hebrew: yatoosh
- Indonesian: nyamuk
- Italian: zanzara
- Japanese: ka
- Korean: mogi
- Tamil: kosu
- Thai: yoong
- Vietnamese: muoi
The deets on DEET
DEET or N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide, is purported to be the “gold standard” ingredient for repelling mosquitoes. Developed by the US Army in 1946, DEET works by forming a vapor layer on the skin that prevents mosquitoes from landing. Its odor apparently also confuses insects.
There’s been a backlash against DEET in recent years, with many fearing that the plastic-melting chemical can cause side effects such as skin rashes, nausea, or worse. The CDC insists that DEET is fine, if used correctly. But if you’re on the fence, they recommend four other bug-repelling alternatives.
1600s: Yellow fever is introduced to the Americas via the transatlantic slave trade
1895: Japanese businessman Ueyama Eiichiro and his wife Yuki come up with the idea for the mosquito coil, or katori senkō, which translates to “mosquito-killing incense”—a spiral incense stick that releases an aster-derived insecticide.
1900: The Reed Commission, led by Army surgeon Walter Reed—the one whom the massive US military medical center is named after —proves that yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitoes.
1902: Ronald Ross, a doctor from the British West Indies, is awarded the Nobel Prize for proving the connection between mosquitoes and malaria. (World Mosquito Day is celebrated on August 20, in commemoration of his discovery.)
1912: Little Nemo creator Winsor McCay debuts his animated film How a Mosquito Operates, one of the great early works of the genre.
1962: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring highlights the environmental effects of DDT, a pesticide then widely used to kill mosquitoes.
2000s: Mass use of insecticide-treated bed nets begins
2006: Dutch biologists Bart Knols and Ruurd de Jong win the Ig Nobel Prize for proving that the female malaria mosquitoes are “attracted equally to the smell of limburger cheese and to the smell of human feet”
2015: Annual malaria deaths are approximately half of what they were in 2000
2023: Target year to reduce global malaria incidence further by 50%