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Swat Team

Beware the bloodsuckers of summer.




A Natural History of Our Most Persistent and Deadly Foe

By Andrew Spielman and

Michael D'Antonio

Hyperion, 226 pp., $22.95

ay it's August, you're outdoors, it's dusk. You think you're minding your own business, when chances are good something with a body the size and weight of a grape seed is minding your business too. That something is a mosquito, probably female and probably Culex pipiens. Here's how you help her suck the blood right out from under you.

While you've been absentmindedly swatting the air, swatting your ankles, spilling your drink, you've also been exhaling carbon dioxide and lactic acid. Bad move. Sensors on the antennae of a mosquito really go for both, and your "scent plume," which is heavier than air and circling your feet, is only making matters worse. Plus, all that arm action -- you might as well be directing a dive bomber in for a pinpoint attack. The swatting is keeping you the target and the mosquito right on target thanks to her compound eyes, eyes that don't miss a beat. (Nor do her wings, which are going at it between 250 and 500 times per second.)

Now it's feeding time. Her "proboscis" has already probably probed you a good 20 times, but when her "stylets" go to work (like "a pair of electric carving knives"), get ready to lose a few micrograms of blood. And what you've lost the mosquito has gained in two to three times her weight. Now she's struggling to get airborne and out of your way. If she makes it to safety, her digestive system will work for about 45 minutes drawing water from your blood and expelling it. That's 45 minutes you have to strike back. Just be patient and on the lookout for any mosquito that's sitting still and has pink droplets coming out of her anus, sure sign she, having gone from larva to pupa to bloodsucking adult, is now a sitting duck. Same for you. That saliva of hers, the stuff she just pumped into one of your venules or arterioles, could be the death of you, or have you never heard of yellow fever, malaria, dengue, or encephalitis?

Don't know when I learned of those first three but do know I learned of encephalitis firsthand when it sent me, dizzy, to bed, age 7, for three weeks. A mosquito ("vector") to blame? Who knows? New Yorkers heard about encephalitis a lot in 1999 when it killed birds, horses, and people and sent the whole city into a panic, a virus to blame for certain: the "West Nile" type and mosquito-borne.

The source for this and all the above information is the team of Andrew Spielman and Michael D'Antonio in the pages of Mosquito, the latest in what is getting to be a long line of popular books on what one would think unpopular subjects aimed at an unscientifically trained audience. This new book is as interesting as any, perhaps of special interest to Memphians. For it was yellow fever in 1878 that cost the lives of more than 5,000 of its citizens (out of a population of 33,000). And it was in 1983 in a Memphis graveyard that the "tiger" mosquito, Aedes albopictus, was first identified in North America.

How did the tiger get here? Good question. What was it doing here? Having a great time. As Spielman, a senior investigator in tropical diseases at Harvard, and D'Antonio, past Pulitzer Prize winner in journalism, explain, mosquitoes are just crazy about Memphis because the place is made-to-order: mild winters, hot summers, humid, filthy in the 19th century, worldwide importer and exporter of goods in the 20th, all that plus a wide river and standing water everywhere. (Ever tried getting water out of a tire that's doing double-duty as a lawn ornament?) So what better breeding ground or distribution point could there be for these disease-carrying bloodsuckers? Well, New Orleans or Houston may have it worse, and plenty of poorer places across the globe have it much worse than New Orleans or Houston, which makes the continued incidence of yellow fever, malaria, dengue, and encephalitis, despite every effort, no joking matter.

Spielman and D'Antonio don't joke either, but it must be Spielman who can write so admiringly of an insect whose sole purpose is self-preservation and D'Antonio who can write so admiringly of the work to rid the world of the diseases mosquitoes carry.

But FYI, in this summer of Jurassic Park III: Michael Crichton, in his novel Jurassic Park, suggested that dinosaur DNA could be extracted from a blood-filled, dinosaur-chewing mosquito trapped in amber. But Steven Spielberg, in the original film, showed us Toxorynchites, which the authors of Mosquito point out was one mosquito that did not depend on blood. "Its mouthparts are not up to the job." No word from these authors on other blockbusting nuisances this August. But unlike Toxorynchites, Hollywood's up to the job. In fact, it's made it its job. It sucks.

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