Mosquitopia Part 1: Killing Mosquitoes? The Pros and Cons

In the first of this three-part installment, Marcus Hall and Dan Tamir introduce us to the possibility of eradicating mosquitoes from the globe. Experts are asking whether it is indeed possible, advisable, and/or ethical, to pursue such a path. To stimulate further dialogue and bring to light further facets of this complex humanenvironment predicament, the authors, together with RCC’s Christof Mauch, have convened the Rachel Carson Legacy Symposium “Mosquitopia? The Place of Pests in a Healthy World” (2427 October 2019). In the second and third installments, we will hear more about the major arguments for and against saving mosquitoes.
*Featured image: Aedes albopictus (Asian Tiger Mosquito) by Alexander Northey via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0.

By Marcus Hall and Dan Tamir

Global warming is ushering us into a new mosquito epoch.  Ready or not, mosquitoes are coming faster than before; both indigenous and non, disease-carrying and not, human-biting and not. What are we to do with these buzzing creatures, and what has already been done with them? Are we able to control, or locally exterminate them, and with what side effects? Or is it more realistic to admit that Aedes, Anopheles, and Culex are really controlling us? Even if malaria mortality has been dropping in past years, malaria morbidity still pervades the globe, with half of humanity still exposed to this and other dangerous mosquito-carried diseases, from dengue to West Nile, from yellow fever to Zika. Control them we should, we must do, if we are to survive our mosquito-borne Anthropocene.

But there are important reasons to protect mosquitoes, and not just because they are amazing products of co-evolution—because protecting them may in some instances assist us in the battle against human disease. Most obviously, we may need to save mosquitoes for the simple reason that one needs to preserve some in order to figure out how to kill the rest. Yet more subtle justifications for saving mosquitoes center, for instance, on food web dynamics: in our efforts to poison these creatures—or disrupt their habitat, or rearrange their DNA—we may, via ecological loops, actually cause damage to other biological entities such as mosquito predators. This could end up increasing mosquito fitness and their ability to multiply and spread across the earth. Perhaps the sciences of mosquito control, or certain fields at least, have not yet advanced to a stage that we can trust.

Dr. Mark BrownÕs mosquito lab in Athens. September 2010
Dr. Mark Brown’s mosquito lab in Athens. Source: UGA CAES/Extension via flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

Some years ago, Nature journalist Janet Fang posed a simple question about what the ecological consequences might be of eradicating mosquitoes. After all, a concerted campaign across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has been dedicated to this very goal. In sifting through the evidence, Fang’s main answer is that in the case of this blood-sucking insect, humanity and even ecosystems could probably get along just fine without it. She reports on the views of one ecologist who feels that mosquitoes could readily be replaced in the food web, with many mosquito predators eventually able to switch to moths or other sources of food, for example. Although she outlines a host of possible disruptions stemming from the disappearance of mosquitoes, such as the loss of their pollination activities and other ecosystem services, she concludes by quoting entomologist Joe Conlon who feels that ecosystems “will hiccup and then get on with life. Something better or worse would take over.” As Conlon elaborates in his own blog, “I would rather eat raw onions and celery for the rest of my life if I could do away with the little bastards.”

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To find out more about some of the main arguments for saving mosquitos, don’t miss the next installment coming out tomorrow! 

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