Mosquitopia Part 3: Key Reasons for Killing Mosquitoes

In this final installment of the special feature on mosquitoes, the authors present some major arguments for implementing strategies to eradicate mosquitoes. The feature coincides with the Rachel Carson Legacy Symposium “Mosquitopia? The Place of Pests in a Healthy World” being held this weekend (2427 October 2019), and is part of our ongoing blog series “Silent Spring Continued: A World without Insects.”

By Marcus Hall and Dan Tamir

Human health: First and foremost, despite the many and important reasons for saving mosquitoes, or at least saving certain mosquitoes in certain situations, there remains a dire need to eradicate these creatures—even when it means undertaking extreme measures to accomplish this goal. A crucial reason why mosquito-borne diseases are not more pervasive today is that former mosquito controllers were reasonably successful in their goals, bringing mosquito numbers down long enough so that the pathogens they carried dropped below threshold levels. Pandemic mosquito-borne diseases, stemming from transmitted virus, bacteria, and protozoa, are not as dangerous today as they were a century ago, due in good measure to successful anti-mosquito campaigns waged around the world.

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Panama (1910s) during the chemical and oil campaign against mosquitoes, which resulted in long-term negative impacts on mosquito populations but also the ecosystems involved. Image is from the book: Mosquito control in Panama; the eradication of malaria and yellow fever in Cuba and Panama, p. 274 (public domain image via Internet Archive Book Images, flickr).

Pragmatic: It should be pointed out that killing mosquitoes allows us to avoid other, undesirable health (and economic) consequences when dealing with the resulting diseases, such as ingesting nauseating medications. Malaria-exposed soldiers and civilians during World War II sometimes avoided taking their prophylactic Atabrine altogether because of the drug’s sickening side effects.[1] Finding a magic bullet that removes mosquitoes from ecosystems may therefore have ulterior beneficial consequences beyond curtailing disease, including the ability to redirect resources from healthcare to other crucial services. Systematic sterilization of mosquitoes would also allow wetlands to continue being wet, for example, since draining them would no longer be required to disrupt mosquito habitat.

Malaria-Feldspital in
Malaria field hospital in Cividale. A seriously ill patient receives an injection of Salvarsan (public domain image via picryl).
Mosquito fish gambusia sp preparing to ingest a mosquito larva
Mosquito fish about to chow down (public domain image via pixnio).

Ecosystem management: From another perspective, our human-altered biosphere means that mosquito numbers and their distribution are no longer natural, no longer in balance, so that human action is required to bring those balances into better harmony. Here, Stewart Brand’s dictum that “We are as Gods, and may as well get good at it” holds true for mosquito management. After Europeans settled in certain areas of coastal South Africa, massive mosquito swarms arose where they were once rare: one explanation is that newly erected metal rooves concentrated rainfall into puddles, thereby multiplying mosquito habitat and so mosquito-borne disease. A rational human response would therefore aim at resetting environmental equilibria, seeking to recreate proper mosquito balance. Such an argument can be used for justifying efforts to exterminate the invasive Tiger mosquitoes (Aedes albopictus) that were formerly vacant from the Americas and Europe, but which have now spread and are propagating at least 20 threatening diseases.[2] Altering stream ecology by introducing Gambusia fish for slurping up mosquito larvae may be part of the necessary quest to re-engineer the earth.

Comfort: Ridding ourselves of non-disease carrying mosquitoes would likewise bring human benefits. Pesky mosquitoes drive people inside or away from their favorite places. In those areas where yellow fever or dengue, say, are not a threat, removing bloodthirsty insects would still seem a good reason to continue funding mosquito-control agencies. After all, clearing mosquito swarms allows other organisms easier access to space and resources. Coastal wetlands, as in New Jersey, were virtually uninhabitable until early twentieth-century drainage measures decimated mosquito populations and brought land values up.[3]

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This 15–20 million-year-old mosquito, Culex malariager, is infected with the malarial parasite Plasmodium dominicana. It’s the oldest known exemplar showing Plasmodium malaria. (Photo by George Poinar Jr., via Oregon State University, flickr)

The case for killing or else conserving mosquitoes goes to the core of what it means to be human in the natural world. The points covered in these last two posts are just a sampling of the reasons for supporting either side of the argument, and certainly there are many other reasons to be considered. We hope to stimulate reflection and open a wider discourse that will identify other reasons that we have not mentioned—or expand on those we have. How we interact with, show mercy for, declare war on, or learn to live with our most dangerous cohabitant becomes a parable of our future on this planet. We believe that Mosquitopia is that very state of balance that can permit us to survive into the next epoch.

[1] M. Hall, “Environmental Imperialism in Sardinia: Pesticides and Politics in the Struggle Against Malaria,” in Nature and History in Modern Italy. M. Armiero & M. Hall, eds. (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2010), 7086.

[2] S. Bhaumik. 2013. Aggressive Asian tiger mosquito invades Europe. CMAJ. 185 (10): E4644.

[3] G. Patterson, The Mosquito Crusades: A History of the American Anti-mosquito Movement (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2009), 83.

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