By DREW FOULIS
Many consider the mosquito to be the unofficial state bird of Alaska. Some people think of them as a constant annoyance and deterrent to enjoying the outdoors during the summer months. One thing everyone who has encountered this miniature menace can agree on is that they are awful and annoying. When asked “What do you know about mosquitoes?” most Skagwegians reply, “I know, I hate them!” I’m willing to bet good money that this sentiment has resounded since even before the gold rush started. Harmless beyond the initial itch, Alaskan mosquitoes are not known to transmit diseases.
Most of what we know today about the mosquito’s feeding habits and effective population control is due to military activity in the early 1960s. During the Cold War, America was concerned about the possibility of a Russian attack on the mainland of North America. The chemical called DDT, now illegal, was widely utilized to increase the productivity of US military personnel.
DDT is an extremely effective insecticide, with the devastating side effect of killing multiple species of fish. The largest reason it is now illegal is the effect DDT has on local birds. When exposed to DDT, most birds produce eggs with a considerably thinner and more fragile shell, this in turn makes the eggs unable to develop properly.
The most annoying and prolific of the 27 species that buzz around Alaska is the dreaded Aedes intrudens. Although most of the species present similar characteristics, the Aedes group are the most widespread and abundant, but cause the most disturbances. All mosquitoes primarily feed on the nectar and juices of plants, making them the number one wildflower pollinator in Alaska. Only the females require a “blood meal” to produce viable eggs. Some of the species present in Skagway feed only on cold-blooded animals like frogs. Caribou, bears, goats, and moose are all large sources of blood for mosquitoes, but most of the blood meals are collected from baby birds, lemmings and mice.
How can you avoid being on the menu? The answer lies in understanding a few conditions that contribute to more active adults. Most species are crepuscular, meaning peak activity happens during twilight. Activity is also influenced by temperature, light, wind, and pressure change. When temperatures dip below 45 degrees F, mosquito activity is greatly reduced. When wind speeds approach 5 MPH, most mosquitoes are not active. Mosquitoes appear to prefer warmer air that is decreasing in moisture and pressure. Alaskan mosquitoes are limited by a short and relatively cold summer season. Most species only have one brood every year which makes them have to stagger their maturation rate. There are several waves of assault, each dominated by different species. The Aedes mosquito lays its eggs in dry soil that will become wet; the eggs lie dormant for several years until proper moisture levels are obtained.
Here are a couple strategies that will decrease the impact of the naughty little nuisance. All biting mosquitoes are attracted to heat, moisture and carbon dioxide. Some species are drawn to light colors while other species prefer dark colors, so regardless of what you wear, the mosquitoes will like it. One thing I know for a fact that they don’t like is DEET. They might still land on you, but one sniff will have them looking for a lemming.
For better or worse, there is a marriage between the wild lands we call Alaska and the necessary nuisance of the mosquito. Regardless of the impact mosquitos have on your picnic, they offer a veritable buffet for local fish, dragonflies, and birds. The best way to keep yourself off the menu is to limit your outside time at dawn and dusk, procure a strong bottle of DEET and try not to let yourself expel excessive amounts of CO2 and body heat. Next time you are swatting one of these prolific pests, try to remember they have been bugging everyone in Alaska for a long, long time.
Drew Foulis has been feeding the local population of Aedes Intrudens since early May and will continue until the end of September. Join him in the ritual of bloodletting by going outside and enjoying the multitude of mosquitos!