By multiple contributors. University of Nebraska Press. 44 pages. 2021. $14.95
By the time this review is published, if things proceed as normal, first blood will have already been drawn. Not by a human, but by one of Alaska’s ubiquitous mosquitoes. Every year, as the light streams back and the snow begins to melt, Alaskans eagerly anticipate summer. It’s a glorious feeling that’s brought to an abrupt end by the telltale buzzing sound of that first mosquito making contact with human flesh finally exposed to open air after months of cold weather. It never fails.
Mosquitoes are often referred to as the state bird, and some of those found in Alaska are large enough to nearly qualify. Still, despite being inundated with the tiny vampires, we should count ourselves lucky. None of Alaska’s mosquitoes carry deadly diseases. Roughly 1 million people die annually from diseases acquired via mosquito transmission. And it has been persuasively argued that mosquitoes, through that disease spread, have killed more humans than any other creature on Earth. It’s understandable why plenty of people would prefer to see them wiped from the planet.
This, of course, would be detrimental to all life, a point made in the opening story of a kids’ science comic book about the insects, appropriately titled “Mosquitoes SUCK!” Through a combination of comics and text, the book, a collaborative effort of scientists, writers and cartoonists, introduces kids to the world of mosquitoes and why, despite the annoyance they present, we need them.
In the opening episode of the book, it’s 2080 and mosquitoes have been successfully exterminated. At the Museum of Natural History, now relocated to Des Moines, Iowa, because New York City is flooded thanks to climate change, a group of kids visit an exhibit about what once was. As the apocalyptic story demonstrates, the banishment of mosquitoes from the ecosystem launched a domino reaction, with bees, trees, flowers, and birds also dying off as a result.
From there we move to a classroom at the University of Wisconsin, where professor Mayleen Marius studies the little bloodsuckers. She tells students that of the 3,600 species of mosquitoes, only a handful transmit diseases. They first need to prey on an infected person, then the mosquitoes have to be compatible with the microbes being transferred to the next victim. This is why malaria is not a concern in Alaska. Our mosquitoes cannot carry it.
Despite their relentless assault on us, we need mosquitoes, a point made in another short comic story where readers follow the insect’s life cycle. The blood that the female mosquito just extracted from your arm feeds the hundreds of eggs that she then lays in stagnant water. Those eggs sit atop the water in a cluster called a raft. Predators abound, of course, and when the larvae hatch, they have to escape from hungry fish and other critters. Most don’t. The artwork by Michael Cavallaro on these pages is great, with mosquito larvae fleeing and the fish in hot pursuit, both displaying animated expressions on their cartoon faces. Not 100% scientifically accurate, but fun.
Thanks to predation, only a few larvae make it to the pupal stage before finally emerging as adults. That mosquito you just slapped ran a rougher gantlet than a Pacific salmon before coming after your exposed forearm. Most of her siblings died. So maybe show it a little sympathy. It’s an expectant mother trying to feed the eggs in her body so she can create more mosquitoes.
OK, that’s probably too much to ask. Regardless of how essential mosquitoes are to the planetary food chain, we just don’t like them. In another cartoon, readers are shown how humanity has fought a forever war against mosquitoes, one that ramped up in the mid-20th century. Intentions were good. Malaria, yellow fever, dengue and other mosquito-borne diseases were rampant. But some tactics were less admirable. Pouring motor oil on standing water, for instance, killed everything else as well; fish, plants, tadpoles.
More troublesome is DDT, which is still used in some places but banned in the United States. Effective at killing mosquitoes, it springs up the food chain without diminishing, causing considerable harm and wreaking particular havoc on bird populations. As smaller creatures are eaten by larger ones, the resilient DDT that first landed on mosquitoes in a swamp passes upward from one creature to the next. In the meantime, the bugs become resistant to the chemical.
Bioengineering offers some possibilities for fighting mosquitoes in ways that won’t harm the broader environment. Efforts are ongoing to genetically alter mosquitoes so they cannot carry malaria, or to alter malaria itself. Not quite the science fiction found in the first comic story in this book, but close. Results are yet to be seen.
About 10 pages of the book are given over to lively text that fills in some of the gaps for young scientists learning about these bugs. As many of us know, it’s only the females to draw blood from mammals. And they don’t bite, actually. They suck. When a mosquito lands on your exposed ankle, she drives her proboscis into your skin, and, through a straw-like tube, begins withdrawing a tiny sample of your blood. She simultaneously pumps saliva into the entry spot, which thins the blood for ease of withdrawal. That’s what makes you itch. It’s also how diseases are spread. But again, here in Alaska that’s not a worry.
“Mosquitoes SUCK!” is a fine book for junior high-aged kids and would be a good addition to school libraries. Fun, colorful and entertaining, it offers just enough of an introduction to get the young ones interested, without getting bogged down in details. And the comic book format is ideal for struggling readers. Kids hate mosquitoes, and we’ve been fighting them for millennia, this book reminds us. “But if we’ve learned one thing from our battle with mosquitoes,” the authors emphasize, “it is that mosquitoes will always adapt. Throughout history, they’ve been a formidable opponent: small, sneaky, numerous and persistent.”