Science

Curious Alaska: We call mosquitoes the unofficial state bird. Are they really that scary?

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Question: Alaskans have long joked that the unofficial state bird is the mosquito. But how much worse off is Alaska than other mosquito-infested places? Are they really that bad in Alaska?

The answer is in some ways yes, and in some ways no. But in the future, they could get worse.

What sets Alaska’s ferocious mosquito swarms apart is how far north the state is. Mosquitoes can be much denser in higher latitudes than in lower ones, said Derek Sikes, curator of insects and professor of entomology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

While it’s not totally known why that is, it may be due in part to Alaska’s plentiful standing water. The state’s permafrost prevents water from draining, which means the Arctic is full of small pools, where mosquitoes live as larvae.

“The farther north you go, the more likely you’re going to encounter huge swarms,” Sikes said. “Once you get into tundra habitat, they basically can darken the sky — you have to be protected.”

In northern parts of the state, mosquitoes can form massive swarms, resembling something out of an Alfred Hitchcock film — just swap birds for mosquitoes — pursuing blood en masse. They buzz. They climb beneath sleeves and pant legs and get inhaled.

[Whether cursing or joking, Alaskans have always had a lot to say about our ‘state bird’: the mosquito]

Alaskans describe extreme measures and scenarios when it comes to fending off the bugs. Ryan Bierma, who does fieldwork around the state, said he tapes the cuffs of his leather gloves shut and wears long sleeves, even in the heat of an Interior summer, and an $80 bug shirt that he says is “worth a million dollars.”

In Unalakleet, Paul Ivanoff III described having to change a mosquito trapping machine daily on his deck, instead of the suggested weekly changeout, because it gets so full.

Throughout the state, the general rule is a wet spring means more mosquitoes, since the water gives them more places to lay eggs, Sikes said.

A “bad” mosquito year is variable from place to place and person to person, said Sikes, “but if enough people start reporting that it’s a bad year then it’s probably true.”

There are 35 known species of mosquitoes in Alaska, Sikes said. They break down into two groups. First, there are the big snow mosquitoes, which show up when there is still snow on the ground. They have spent an entire winter as adults tucked into the bark of a dying tree or beneath the snow. While the snow mosquitoes are big, they’re not really as scary, Sikes said, since they don’t come in huge swarms and are also slow.

The other mosquitoes in the state spend winter as larvae or as eggs, in or near wet areas, and appear later in the season, around May or June, Sikes said.

In the Arctic, because of the short growing season, the mosquito species come out at around the same time, said Lauren Culler, a research assistant professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College.

That results in “these really intense periods where all of the female mosquitoes are flying around looking for a blood meal,” said Culler, who researches mosquitoes in Greenland and focuses on how Arctic mosquitoes respond to climate change.

“They may be around overall for less time, but when they are around, it’s more intense,” she said.

While Alaska’s mosquitoes may be plentiful, they are not as dangerous as those in other parts of the U.S. and the world. That’s because they do not transmit any diseases to humans — Alaska is the only state where that’s the case.

“Mosquitoes drinking your blood is not a medical concern like it might be elsewhere,” Sikes said.

One mosquito that can transmit West Nile virus has been moving north and has been found in Alaska. But the disease has not, meaning the mosquito may be moving north faster than the disease, Sikes said.

But if the state warms enough, mosquito species that transmit diseases to humans could gain a foothold in Alaska.

“That is definitely on the horizon,” Sikes said. “So it’s just one of the very long list of negative consequences of climate change.”

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Morgan Krakow

Morgan Krakow is a general assignment reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She is a 2019 graduate of the University of Oregon and spent the summer of 2019 as a reporting intern on the general assignment desk of The Washington Post. Contact her at mkrakow@adn.com.

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