By Kevin Franklin
I HAVE KILLED, but I must kill more. In one evening I bag 14 mosquitoes in my house. And yet, when I crawl into bed and try to will myself into inconspicuousness, the sound comes to me. Like tiny engines revving, the whine of still more mosquitoes reaches out through the darkness, striking fear into my epidermis.
It wasn't always this way. I've lived in the same neighborhood for six years. In those years this town has had great monsoon seasons, but it hasn't been until the last few years that mosquitoes have plagued my central Tucson neighborhood.
"My guess," says Carl Olson, University of Arizona entomology curator, "is they pretty much disappeared from 1945 to right about three years ago."
Though Olson points out no one really knows because no one keeps hard data on the size of the 'skeeter population. The Arizona Department of Health Services keeps an eye on the presence of disease-carrying mosquitoes, (we have both malaria- and dengue fever-carrying mosquitoes in certain areas, but no sign of either disease), but not the relative quantity.
Whatever their comparative numbers this year, as we start moving into autumn, get a few cold blasts and our desert dries out, the mosquito numbers will fall off. At least that's the way it's supposed to work.
Each year as our far-sighted city planners and well-meaning developers put in another golf course, another pointless lake or another bed of water-intensive flowers, the mosquito habitat grows in size and duration. Sure their numbers still fall back in the winter, but each year the population base grows.
That means each spring there are more eggs waiting to hatch in more places, and the mosquitoes fan out to retake their territory faster and in greater numbers.
"We're turning this into a stupid Midwestern town," Olson says. "All of this change is going on as we move from being a real desert community. All these people move out here with their water-needy plants, and now we have water all the time. We've given mosquitoes the ability to reproduce constantly."
Which brings me to the point of cynicism. In a very real sense, there are no environmental problems in the world. As we fill the oceans with sludge, chop down our forests, destroy our protective ozone layer and put in another mosquito-generating fish pond, we're helping nature along with a biological course correction.
Species that consume and destroy their environment are nothing new to this planet. Some of the original algae in the earth's primordial soup formed oxygen as a waste product. Oxygen was poisonous to these first attempts at life and so their populations plummeted as they poisoned themselves. This false start went around a couple of times until one life form evolved the ability to use oxygen, and it was the best thing until sliced bread. Today, the only place to find those first anaerobic creatures is deep in murky swamps or in forgotten Tupperware in the back of the refrigerator.
As we go about destroying and altering our surroundings, our environment will continue to respond accordingly. In the long run, we may wreck our atmosphere to the point of giving everyone skin cancer and that will be that. In the short run, here in Tucson, prepare for a self-inflicted, Biblical dose of mosquito plague.
A hundred years ago, malaria was a problem in the Southwest, as evidenced in the pioneer exhibit at the Fort Lowell branch of the Arizona Historical Society. When we destroyed most of our rivers and cienegas, we also took out many of the mosquitoes. But now we're creating mosquito breeding pockets again, only this time they're not balanced ecological systems.
We killed off many of our frogs and desert fish. Our house cats, disease ridden bird-baths and habitat destruction have pummeled flycatchers and night hawk populations. Many invertebrate predators take the brunt of the punishment from agricultural pesticides while the more numerous and faster-breeding "pests" grow resistant.
And now we've brought back the mosquitoes. Only this time we've weakened the natural wall protecting us from them. It's like letting all the prisoners out after having fired the entire police force.
Brace yourselves for a bug riot.
The likelihood of a disease like malaria or dengue fever entering the mosquito population is pretty much a wild card. In order for that to happen, someone with the disease needs to get bitten by the right kind of mosquito at the right time, and then the disease could vector into the population. It seems preposterous, until you consider the ease and frequency of world travel. Just about anything can turn up in our local burgh.
So the annoying noise of the mosquito in my room turns out to be a sort of question: What, as a city, do we plan to do?
We can continue with the status quo and end up with who knows what. We can prepare to soak our environment with pesticides, as we did in the 1940s with DDT, and explain to our six-fingered children that we did it for their own good. Or we can put a stop to the ill-conceived remolding of this city into some Midwestern water world. Dry out the fish ponds, replace the tulips with desert marigold and just say no to the construction of artificial lakes with no natural ecological systems.
The mosquito presence is not unfortunate coincidence. It's a signal from our environment that we're headed down the wrong street. Since thousands of mosquitoes can breed in just one poorly managed yard, reversing our course requires everyone open their eyes and see what's happening.
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