After hot dish with white sauce,

not to mention Jell-O salad with marshmallows, what is more commonly identified with Minnesota than mosquitoes? OK, cold weather, but “My, the mosquitoes are bad tonight” could be the state motto. Not a native Gopher myself, having become one via marriage to an Aitkin Gobbler and University of Minnesota graduate school, I am amused by native Gophers swatting their bare arms on a summer evening, talking about mosquitoes when long sleeves and long pants and a cap would solve most of their problem even without Deet or a headnet.

A recent issue of “The Economist,” the best newsmagazine in the world, reviewed a new book “The Mosquito” by Timothy Winegard, his description of how mosquitoes have changed world history in some surprising ways. The author maintains that mosquitoes have killed half of all the humans born to date. I have not read the book but the following information is from the review.

In World War II there were two enemies in the Pacific, the Japanese and mosquito-borne malaria. Malaria once killed over 20% of the population in the Fens of eastern England, a low-lying marshy area. Yellow fever ravaged Memphis, Tennessee deep into the 1800s. (Yellow fever and malaria are not the same but both are carried by mosquitoes.)

On the other hand, mosquitoes have shaped world history. Mosquitoes helped save the Romans from Hannibal and Europe from the Mongols. Europeans thought Africans’ alleged immunity made them ideal slaves for the New World. 85% of French soldiers sent to end the slave rebellion in Haiti died of mosquito-borne illnesses, enabling Haitian independence. A Confederate zealot once tried to infect Abraham Lincoln with yellow fever. Ancient Egyptians bathed in urine to fight malarial fevers. (You read that right.) And we all know from school that the Panama Canal was not completed until yellow fever was countered.

Drugs and insecticides have slashed malaria rates but mosquitoes are adept at developing immunity. The author states that even today  800,000 people are dying of mosquito-borne illnesses every year, witness the recent Zika outbreak.

Previously, Rachel Carson’s famous book “Silent Spring” stoked mosquito controversy. Widely credited with reducing if not eliminating DDT world-wide, critics say it contributes to the deaths of thousands in the Third World today, especially children, and the arguments continue.

Gene editing might one day render mosquitoes harmless or even eliminate them but if so, what would bats subsist on? Bats eat their body weight in insects, often mosquitoes, every night. Tinkering with mother nature can have unintended consequences.

As I said, I am amused by Gophers talking about how big and bad the mosquitoes are tonight. You have never seen a real mosquito in Minnesota. In 1956 I fought forest fires for the U.S. government in Alaska. There I once saw a mosquito carry a dog away, later two of them carry a man away while discussing how to hide their prey from the big ones at home.   

Fred Donner, a snowbird on Sugar Lake and a political independent, is a retired State Dept. and Defense Dept. S.E. Asia intelligence analyst.

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