By several contributors. University of Nebraska Press. 44 pages. 2021. $14.95
At the time of publication of this review, if things are going normally, the first blood will have already been drawn. Not by a human, but by one of Alaska’s ubiquitous mosquitoes. Each year, as the light returns and the snow begins to melt, Alaskans look forward to summer. It’s a glorious feeling that ends abruptly with the telltale buzz of that first mosquito coming into contact with human flesh finally exposed to the open air after months of cold. He never fails.
Mosquitoes are often called the state bird, and some of those found in Alaska are large enough to almost qualify. Yet despite being inundated with tiny vampires, we should count ourselves lucky. None of Alaska’s mosquitoes carry deadly diseases. About 1 million people die each year from diseases acquired through mosquito transmission. And it has been argued convincingly that mosquitoes, through this spread of disease, have killed more humans than any other creature on Earth. We understand why many people would prefer to see them disappear from the planet.
This, of course, would be detrimental to all life, a point made in the opening story of a children’s science comic about insects, aptly titled “Mosquitoes SUCK!” Through a combination of comics and text, the book, a collaborative effort of scientists, writers and cartoonists, introduces children to the world of mosquitoes and why, despite the annoyance they present, we need them.
In the opening episode of the book, it is 2080 and the mosquitoes have been successfully exterminated. At the Museum of Natural History, now relocated to Des Moines, Iowa, because New York City is flooding due to climate change, a group of children visit an exhibit about what once was. As the apocalyptic story shows, the banishment of mosquitoes from the ecosystem triggered a domino reaction, also leading to the death of bees, trees, flowers and birds.
From there, we head to a classroom at the University of Wisconsin, where Professor Mayleen Marius is studying little bloodsuckers. She tells the students that of the 3,600 species of mosquitoes, only a handful transmit disease. They must first attack an infected person, then the mosquitoes must be compatible with the germs transferred to the next victim. This is why malaria is not a problem in Alaska. Our mosquitoes cannot carry it.
Despite their relentless assault on us, we do need mosquitoes, a point made in another comic short story where readers follow the insect’s life cycle. The blood that the female mosquito has just extracted from your arm feeds the hundreds of eggs that she then lays in the stagnant water. These eggs rest above the water in a group called a raft. Predators abound, of course, and when the larvae hatch, they must escape hungry fish and other critters. Most don’t. Michael Cavallaro’s illustrations on these pages are stunning, with fleeing mosquito larvae and chasing fish, both displaying animated expressions on their cartoon faces. Not 100% scientifically accurate, but fun.
[Whether cursing or joking, Alaskans have always had a lot to say about our ‘state bird’: the mosquito]
Thanks to predation, only a few larvae reach the pupal stage before finally emerging as adults. That mosquito you just slapped ran a gauntlet rougher than a Pacific salmon before coming after your exposed forearm. Most of his siblings are dead. So maybe show him some sympathy. She is an expectant mother trying to feed eggs from her body to create more mosquitoes.
OK, that’s probably too much to ask. No matter how essential mosquitoes are to the planetary food chain, we just don’t like them. In another cartoon, readers are shown how mankind waged an eternal war against mosquitoes, a war that escalated in the mid-twentieth century. The intentions were good. Malaria, yellow fever, dengue and other mosquito-borne diseases were rampant. But some tactics were less than admirable. Pouring motor oil on standing water, for example, also killed everything else; fish, plants, tadpoles.
More troublesome is DDT, which is still used in some places but banned in the United States. Effective in killing mosquitoes, it moves up the food chain without diminishing, causing considerable damage and wreaking particular havoc on bird populations. As the smaller creatures are eaten by the larger ones, the resistant DDT that first landed on mosquitoes in a swamp passes from creature to creature. In the meantime, the insects become resistant to the chemical.
Bioengineering offers some possibilities for controlling mosquitoes without harming the wider environment. Efforts are underway to genetically modify mosquitoes so that they do not carry malaria, or to modify malaria itself. Not quite the science fiction found in the first comic story in this book, but close. The results are yet to be seen.
About 10 pages of the book are devoted to lively text that fills in some of the gaps for young scientists who discover these bugs. As many of us know, only females draw blood from mammals. And they don’t actually bite. They suck. When a mosquito lands on your exposed ankle, it buries its proboscis into your skin and, through a straw-like tube, begins to take a small sample of your blood. It simultaneously pumps saliva into the point of entry, thinning the blood for easier removal. That’s what itches you. It is also how diseases are spread. But again, here in Alaska, that’s not a concern.
[Why only female mosquitoes bother us (and other facts about the insects Alaskans love to hate)]
“Mosquitoes SUCK!” is a good book for middle-aged children and would be a good addition to school libraries. Playful, colorful and entertaining, it offers just the right amount of introduction to interest the youngest, without getting bogged down in details. And the comic book format is great for struggling readers. Children hate mosquitoes, and we’ve been battling them for millennia, this book reminds us. “But if we’ve learned one thing from our fight against mosquitoes,” the authors point out, “it’s that mosquitoes will always adapt. Throughout history, they have been a formidable adversary: small, sneaky, numerous and persistent.