The Menace Mosquito
Updated: Feb 14
Two incidents this past January got me thinking a bit prematurely about mosquitos. The first was when a snow midge drifted by the face of a friend as we talked outside. "Did you see that?" they exclaimed. "A mosquito, in the dead of winter!" I informed them it was a snow midge and nothing to fret over. They proceeded to eye me with bewilderment and suspicion, as if I had made such a thing up. (Trust me, friend, snow midges are quite real. And quite harmless.)
A couple weeks later, I found myself in the waiting area of a salon. A gentleman sitting next to me, also in waiting, was reading an interestingly titled nonfiction: "The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator".
Now, really, the title seemed a bit dramatic. Obviously it was worded for shock effect (editor points, here), but its premise legitimately got my attention. Is the mosquito really the deadliest? And, on that note, is it really a predator, or would this blood-sucking insect be considered more of a parasite... or something else?
And, you know me: Research ensued.
(Even though I wrote a Local Wild on mosquitos last March, that article's focus was more on the mosquito's overwintering abilities and mosquito control than on the nature of the insect itself.)
According to Australian Museum, mosquitoes are actually parasites, not predators, though the latter sounds much more dramatic for book cover purposes. Australian Museum gives a good list of differentiating factors between the two. For instance, "a predator is an organism that captures and eats another (the prey)... are usually larger than their prey, or overwhelm their prey by attacking in large numbers like ants", while "a parasite is an organism that lives at the expense of another organism... [is] usually smaller than their host... generally do not kill the host but may harm the host indirectly by spreading pathogens."
A predator is an organism that captures and eats another, while a parasite lives at the expense of another organism.
But I give the author leeway: He probably has some creative, poetic reason why he's calling mosquitos a predator rather than the scientifically correct "parasite". Maybe it's because mosquitos infect over hundreds of millions globally with disease every year; of those, anywhere from 725,ooo to over 1 million die of their affliction (that's an estimate from 2018). Much of this happens outside the U.S. in less developed countries, but because of tourism, travel, and our increasingly worldwide shuffling of goods and people, the mosquito is getting more mobile.
It may be slightly comical imagining a mosquito in Mexico infected with Zika traveling in relative luxury to Los Angeles, or an African mosquito carrying dengue fever flying to New York City (or Minneapolis!) in a First Class carry-on, but it happens enough that entomologists have given names to this very activity. When the stowaway parasite hides in a suitcase and ends up in someone's home, it's called Luggage Transmission; when they take a ride in an aircraft cargo hold or cabin and spreads disease with the airport itself as "ground zero", it's called Airport Transmission. Both types of events are responsible for many an outbreak of mosquito-borne disease. Examples of disease spreading by either luggage or airport transmission include a man in coastal Australia who contracted dengue and a Parisian man who contracted malaria; both got ill from these foreign diseases, yet neither had left their home countries in years.[i]
Another pest commonly transported by aircraft is the bed bug, which became something of a hospitality industry nightmare about a decade ago, and is still going strong. At the time of the up-rise in 2008/2009, I was working as a salesperson for a Georgia (USA)-based bedbug mattress cover manufacturer. It wasn't the most interesting job, but I made lots of presentations to Terminix and Orkin offices, who sold our covers to their customers who were suffering from bed bugs, as well as some small-time hospitality moguls in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Seattle, and San Francisco. The job didn't last long (I'm no good at sales), but it did let me travel a bit and, more, it taught me a thing or two about checking my hotel room for signs of bed bugs before getting settled in!
But, back to the original questions:
Are mosquitos predators? No, not in the technical sense, but they are very effective parasites.
Even if mosquitos aren't predators, can they still be considered the deadliest animal in the world? Yes. By a far margin. (Yes--They kill even more than the second deadliest animal in the world: Humans.[ii])
Needless to say, I'm feeling not at all thrilled by the onslaught of mosquitos this year. Pests.com offers a handy (if daunting) mosquito forecast. They haven't updated for 2020 yet, but their 2019 Forecast seems fairly accurate, in retrospect. I was bitten more last year by mosquitos than previous years and that makes sense seeing as the forecast for 2019 was noted as "slightly above average mosquito population".
We have a few more months of peace yet until this war-mongering little parasite invades our lives again ("official" mosquito season starts in May). Until then, I'll be enjoying the local wild, sans insect repellent.
[i] Sullivan, Laurie. "Case of the slippery stowaway", TravelVax, 12Feb2014. URL: https://www.travelvax.com.au/latest-news/case-slippery-stowaway
[ii] Ramsey, Lydia. "These are the top 15 deadliest animals on Earth", ScienceAlert, 23Feb2018. URL: https://www.sciencealert.com/what-are-the-worlds-15-deadliest-animals