Will Frankenskeeters Do The Job?

Ed Raymond

A quote from Minnesota DNR technician Vince Nelson in John Myers’ article in the Fargo Forum jarred my senses the other day: “I haven’t seen a moose all summer.” Corky and I have driven and camped through much of northern Minnesota bog and swamp country for over fifty years and have seen many moose eating in the muck. But I had a meeting in Duluth about a month ago, so we drove through Akeley, Walker, Remer, Floodwood, and all of those interesting little towns. I kept saying to Corky, “That’s sure looks like moose territory.” We didn’t see a single one coming or going. It might have been happenstance, but it might have been that Eastern Equine Encephalitis has killed them off. Anyway, that’s one theory.
   After the Forum article appeared, I went to my environmental file and reviewed Michael Specter’s article “The Mosquito Solution” in the July 2012 New Yorker and other articles I have collected over the years. I knew I had saved them for some reason! They are my principal sources for this column.
   We have discovered over 3,000 species of mosquitoes on all continents except Antarctica. So far, mosquitoes are even more efficient killing machines than man himself. Specter writes that mosquitoes are responsible for half the deaths in human history. I suppose a contrarian could argue with that estimate, but Joe Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and the men and rats who passed the bubonic plague around Europe in the Middle Ages were pikers. Malaria is the specialty of mosquitoes, but they keep busy killing humans with such potentially fatal infections of yellow fever, dengue fever, chikungunya, lymphatic filariasis, Rift Valley fever, West Nile fever, and several different types of encephalitis. France abandoned the digging of the Panama Canal to the United States in 1903 after they lost 22,000 workers to yellow fever.

Mosquito Expert
Dr. Paul Reiter:
“We Have Dragged
Mosquitoes Around
The World In Billions
Of Used Tires”

   The “Intelligent Design” crowd won’t believe this, but viruses, parasites, and other creepy crawlies evolve with great rapidity to resist pesticides and drugs. Many insecticides are now useless. Globalization has been very good for the One Percenters and mosquitoes. The species Aedes Aegypti (AA) is one of the major killers among the 3,000 species. They don’t fly far or live long. They live for about ten days and travel no more than a few hundred yards. Some mosquito species are quite noisy. AA is not. They find blood during the day and bite people in the ankles or legs. They bite often and deposit pathogens with every one. Most mosquitoes lay hundreds of eggs in a single raft the size of a grain of rice, but AA lay eggs all over the place, ensuring that some will survive.
   Dr. Paul Reiter of the Pasteur Institute in Paris is a world expert on mosquito diseases. He says AA probably got to the U.S. on slave ships in the 17th century, surviving the trip in or around water casks. New Englanders suffered from yellow fever epidemics in the 18th century, particularly in port cities where ships were headquartered.
   Reiter says we are more in danger from AA than ever because used tires lying around are ideal incubators. They trap rainwater, absorb heat because they are black, and grow bacteria in all of the puddles they create. We export millions of used tires overseas each year to practically every other country on earth. The World Health Organization estimates the number of dengue fever cases has increased thirty-fold in just the last 45 years, mainly because of used tires.

AA And Yellow Fever
Killed More American
Troops Than
Enemy Bullets

  The AA is a beautiful jet black with white spots on black and white rings on legs. There is a vaccine now that somewhat controls yellow fever, but during the Spanish-American War we lost more troops to yellow fever than to bullets. AA still infects 50 million people a year with dengue fever. Most dengue cases resemble a mild flu, but 500,000 become seriously ill. There is no vaccine and no cure except for killing AA with insecticide. However, a British biotech company called Oxitec is modifying the genetic makeup of the male so that after a male impregnates a female and the eggs hatch, the genes will kill the little AA before they can fly. It seems to work. Tests are being conducted in sections of Brazil, Malaysia, and the Cayman Islands. (It seems we must protect tax havens with the latest defenses!) The company tried to sell the state of Florida on a trial. Key West had a run of dengue fever in 2009, the first epidemic since 1934, making 93 people very sick. Key West wants to spend $200,000 buying AA “Frankenbugs” instead of spending $800,000 on pesticides, but the state EPA is leery. The modified male, called OX513A, is not like other mosquitoes. It is made by man by the millions, then released into the wild. Environmentalists are concerned that we are letting loose some kind of “Frankenskeeter” that may do things we haven’t researched adequately. Helen Wallace, executive director of the environmental organization Gene Watch, doesn’t like the potential: “This mosquito is Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, plain and simple. To open a box and let these man-made creatures fly free is a risk we haven’t begun to contemplate.”
   Only a few hundred species of mosquitoes are interested in bloodlust. Most species eat fruit, rotting fruit, or other sources of tasty sugar. Male AA never bite, but the females need blood to feed their eggs. The female AA seem to have the upper hand. The male has great difficulty escaping from the clutches of the female after mating. She wants to have a cigarette and pillow talk after sex, while he wants a steak and beer. Some males are in such a hurry to get away they leave their sex organs behind. Ouch.

The Unintended
Consequences Of Fooling
With Mother Nature

   Near the end of World War I, Spanish flu swept the world, killing an estimated 20 to 50 million. There was a media blackout on its deadliness because the government did not want to scare our troops going overseas, resulting in the needless deaths of millions. My mother lost four siblings in 1918 during the pandemic.
   One of the most significant examples of man taking on Mother Nature and losing is the great Australian rabbit debacle. We French raised rabbits for food on our little farm by Little Falls, as well as chickens, geese, pigs, and beef. The French and English domesticated rabbits for centuries. Rabbit is on a par with chicken, perhaps even with a little more sophisticated taste.
   When England started sending indentured servants and prisoners to Australia to work off their agreements or sentences, the First Fleet—the transporters and caretakers—brought rabbits to Australia in 1788 to add diversion to the larder. They were raised in cages at first, but rabbits are fairly inventive and some escaped from their prisons. They have no natural enemies in Australia. In just 40 years, thousands of rabbits were decimating crops and plants.
   The current rabbit problem started in 1859 when the wealthy hunter Thomas Austin released 12 wild rabbits on his property so he could hunt them for sport and food. He made this statement about the release: “The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting.” How wrong he was. Ten years later, over two million were shot or trapped each year without any reduction in population. Rabbits do go after it.
   As early as 1907, a rabbit fence hundreds of miles long was built across western Australia in an attempt to contain them. There are some horrible pictures of rabbits being clubbed to death when huge rabbit drives drove thousands against the fence. But a lot of money was made from harvesting rabbits for meat and hides.

A Few Pluses
And Many Minuses

   Surplus rabbits actually helped a lot of poor Australians pay off their farms or indentured service in the 20th century. They also provided a very nutritious food. Rabbits were fed to working cattle dogs and boiled and fed to poultry. When freezing equipment was invented, rabbit carcasses were frozen for local consumption and export. Rabbit fur pelts are still used for coats and felt hats.
   But millions of rabbits have probably changed the ecology of Australia forever. Thousands of species of plants and animals have been lost to the sharp teeth of the rabbit. Rabbits have a nasty habit of ring-barking young trees, thus destroying ornamentals, orchards, and whole forests. They eat plants, roots and all, destroying millions of acres of topsoil because of wind and rain erosion.
   Methods to destroy rabbits have included shooting, destroying rabbit warrens with bulldozers that plough through with sharp tines, blasting warrens, fumigating and poisoning, and the use of microbiology. Ferrets are used to chase rabbits out of their warrens. Poisoning is quite effective, but then the carcass cannot be eaten. Trapping is still used, but only rubber-jawed traps can be used and it is very labor intensive.
   Microbiology techniques have been used since 1950 by releasing Myxoma virus into the wild population. This method reduced the population from an estimated 600 million to about 100 million. But over the 40 years of its use, the rabbits had gradually created enough genetic resistance to the virus that the population was back to 200-300 million by 1990. The fight goes on, all started by twelve very hardy and promiscuous mixed-breed rabbits.

Will Deer Cause As Much Trouble In The U.S. As Rabbits In Australia?

   We live in a wooded area on Pelican Lake and see deer almost every day. I didn’t realize they were becoming such a problem until an editorial in the Star Tribune from Bloomberg News reviewed the damage done to property and people (witness the recent deer attack in Fertile!). State Farm Insurance reported that between June 2010 and June 2011, there were 1.09 million deer-vehicle collisions in the U.S., averaging more than $3,000 an accident. I remember Corky coming home with one headlight and a damaged fender and door after an encounter on the Downer Road. A cool $6,000 worth.
  Experts claim normal forested areas can support between 5 and 15 deer per square mile. Many deer areas in the U.S. support between 40 and 50 deer per square mile, with much larger populations in some Eastern suburbs. Deer eat a lot of important species of plants and trees. They also eat a lot of hay bales in the wintertime! The article covers a number of solutions to the problem, such as shooting more does and using microbiology techniques for mass contraception. Evidently hunters are not ready to accept some solutions. They still want it relatively easy to find a deer with antlers during the fall season. Another solution is to legalize the commercial sale of venison and hides so that deer can be harvested year-round. Hunters don’t like that solution either.
   It’s too bad Burmese pythons imported as pets from Asia can’t survive the cold in northern deer country. They are growing them big in the Florida Everglades these days. I heard a crazy estimate on the radio. Florida authorities say they have between 1,000 and 100,000 pythons in Florida (Florida has never had a very good education system). Perhaps you saw the latest female python caught in the Everglades. At 17 ft. 7 inches, 164 pounds, and 87 large eggs, it could be a formidable opponent for young deer—and small hunters. Burmese can grow to 20 feet and over 200 pounds. Perfectly capable of killing young deer. I wonder if Australia, with much warmer temps, has considered importing Burmese pythons to work on their rabbit problem? And evidently there is not a species of mosquito that can pass on deadly pathogens to snakes either. Too bad.