The Minnesota mosquito mambo
July 12, 2010
by Ivan Raconteur

The shortest season is special in our state because it allows us to venture forth into the great outdoors to enjoy so many activities that we love.

Every evening, thousands of Minnesotans can be found on decks, in driveways, at the lake, or at sports fields across the state performing that unique form of aerobic exercise known as the Minnesota mosquito mambo.

This distinctive exercise involves trying to slap both arms, both legs, and the spot directly between one’s shoulder blades simultaneously, while hopping from foot to foot, and alternately waving one’s arms over one’s head and blowing vigorously to keep the little devils out of one’s face.

It is a complex activity, but it is one that Minnesotans learn at an early age.

This ritual begins at about dusk every summer evening, and has been taking place since long before Minnesota became a state.

There is a common misconception about why settlement took so long in this rugged region. Many people think it was the harsh winters that kept settlers away, but that is not the case.

Even in the days of the earliest pioneers, people found ways to cope with the cold and snow, and even embraced them. It is the Minnesota summers that people found most daunting.

The mosquito mambo is just one of the ways we try to protect ourselves from the state’s smallest predators.

Some might say it is an exaggeration to call mosquitoes predators, but anyone who has spent any time in a quiet room with one of these winged demons knows what I am talking about.

Their small size does not limit their ferocity or their aggressiveness. If one is trying to read while trapped in a room with one of these miniature kamikazes, one will eventually have to put down the book in order to devote all of one’s attention to self defense.

If one is trying to get to sleep in the same circumstances, the high-pitched whine of one’s tormentor will drive one to the edge of madness.

One can try to hide under the covers, but eventually, one will have to come up for air, and then she will have you.

The only solution is to get out of bed, switch on the light, and try to get her before she gets you.

I shudder to think of what it would be like if some larger predator had the ruthlessness of a Minnesota mosquito.

Grizzly bears are magnificent animals and impressive predators, but they generally avoid contact with humans. Imagine what life would be like if bears developed the thirst for our blood that mosquitoes demonstrate.

A well-timed slap is fatal to a mosquito, but it would only annoy a grizzly bear.

Of course, swatting the devils is only our last line of defense. An entire industry has grown up around killing mosquitoes, or at least keeping them at bay long enough for us to enjoy a ball game or social event.

We spray chemicals on wetlands and other potential breeding grounds to try to kill them. We cover ourselves with an array of toxic chemicals in a feeble attempt to keep them away.

We rig up elaborate devices to attract and electrocute them, and we even wear clip-on devices designed to repel them, but still they come.

We usually talk about mosquitoes in general terms, but there are actually about 170 species in North America. Minnesota is home to about 50 species of mosquitoes, and more than half of these bite humans.

There are so many of them, in fact, that they have been described as Minnesota’s “unofficial state bird.”

Mosquitoes are members of the insect class, aedes, genus culex; and the order, diptera.

There are about 3,000 species of mosquitoes in the world, but most Minnesotans would say that ours are the fiercest. This is probably because we have such a short season. It gives them a sense of urgency about getting their next snack of human blood.

Lest anyone get the wrong idea about the fact that only female mosquitoes bite humans, it should be noted that they use the blood to nourish their eggs (the males feed on plant nectar or sap).

The crafty she-devils find us by sensing the heat of our bodies (infrared radiation) and the carbon dioxide that we exhale.

Mosquitoes in Minnesota can transmit some unpleasant diseases, such as encephalitis, but we are fortunate that they don’t transmit yellow fever or malaria. Worldwide, mosquitoes infect about 500 million people with diseases each year, resulting in about 2 million deaths.

Recently, an unwelcome addition joined Minnesota’s mosquito population. The Japanese rock pool mosquito, a potential carrier of the LaCrosse encephalitis virus and the West Nile virus, has been expanding its territory in the state since about 2007.

Part of the problem with mosquitoes is that there are so many of them. A single female mosquito can lay up to 400 eggs at a time, and eggs can survive for as long as five years. The eggs need water in order to hatch, which is why the flying fiends are so abundant after a heavy rain.

Some species of mosquitoes can produce four or more generations per year. Eggs in the ground can survive over the winter, waiting to produce the next crop of tiny tormentors in the spring.

Many cities have adopted programs to combat mosquitoes. It would be nearly impossible to eliminate them, but the spraying programs seem to help.

In addition to inspiring the Minnesota mosquito mambo, mosquitoes, like the harsh Minnesota winters, help define who we are as a people and a state.

They can also help us appreciate those brief periods in the spring and fall, between snow season and mosquito season, when we can enjoy the outdoors without being covered by winter wardrobes or the chemicals of summer.