Mosquito memory: the science of the swat

PHOTO: Tom, Flickr CC

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Everyone loves Mother Nature until they realize how many ways she extracts your blood involuntarily.

We’ve evolved to be mindful of larger animals that can eat us whole. But while we’ve been worrying about bears and sharks, tiny little animals have been plotting to raid our sweat, blood and skin. It’s like Oceans 11, only we’re the casino. This summer in Minnesota, millions of minuscule organisms are getting back together for just one more heist before retirement.

Leeches are definitely the creepiest but at least they don’t sneak into your bedroom at night. I mean, I don’t think they do? (pause) Hmmm.

Ticks are almost as creepy, but they’re quiet. They’re sneaky and carry diseases, but really they’re no worse than pumping a septic. If you strip down and clean up afterward, you will probably be fine.

But mosquitoes. They’re everywhere. An individual mosquito seems like one of the dumbest predators in nature. It’s a bumbler. A straw with wings. They’re about as stealthy as a truckload of pipes falling onto a warehouse floor.

Few sounds compare with that of a single mosquito in your bedroom at night. It’s an entire self-contained play, one that includes the five parts of drama.

First, you’ve got exposition. A tired human beds down for the night. A hungry mosquito cleans its proboscis in the tub drain.

Then, comes rising action. A subtle buzz builds into a wavering crescendo. The human knows that the mosquito comes for blood, but where is it? When will it arrive? This becomes conflict. Neither the human’s sleep, nor the mosquito’s meal will be possible until resolution.

The next stage is the climax. The mosquito ducks into the ear canal like the secret hole on the Death star, no bigger than a womp rat. The human shakes it out and thrashes off the covers. SLAP the wall! SLAP the mattress. Hands swinging. Shake! Shake! A guttural scream and a final SPLAT!

Then denouement. The action subsides. The human settles back to sleep. Until the conclusion, which is when another mosquito emerges from the drain, ensuring a sequel.

Outside, the story is not one mosquito, but clouds of them. People develop different strategies. Some pump cubic feet of chemical bug repellent into the air, refusing to stop until their children’s eyes start twitching. Some turn into a Deep Woods version of Chuck Norris, watching the little pests poke into their skin, waiting until they’re almost sated before smashing them into a bloody pulp. Others flail about like the wacky inflatable tube man at the local car dealership.

Whatever your strategy, science now offers clues. This year, a study published in the journal Current Biology indicates that mosquitos are a shade smarter than you think. The story was reported in the New York Times.

For one thing, according to the University of Washington research, it’s true. We’re delicious. Mosquitos prefer people to animals. And it’s true that some people are more attractive to mosquitoes than others.

But the study also shows that mosquitoes can be reprogrammed. They can learn which fleshy bags of blood are worth pursuing and which are too risky. Scientists observed that mosquitoes will remember the times they were almost swatted to death. They will then remember the smell of that person and avoid them for up to 24 hours afterward.

In other words, keep swatting, people. Swat and swat some more. Eventually those skeeters will set in on the deer, or the dog or, better yet, the delicious person sleeping next to you.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, July 1, 2018 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. It was based on a monologue performed in the June 23 Great Northern Radio Show.

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