A Genetically-Altered Mosquito
& the Arrival of Heat Wave Pests
As if a punishing drought in the middle west, and the threat of freak tornadoes in the east were not enough, now experts are warning us that such conditions may be ideal to a another wave of undesired guests arriving at our doorsteps: bugs. But unlike (most) of out of towners willing to camp in our cramped quarters, these visitors bite.
So since heat-seeker crawlers, such as ticks, bedbugs, and (dear lord) black widows, are expected to find shelter under our roofs, we may need protection. Some countries are already unleashing an army of genetically-modified mosquitoes, or coating whole villages with a special paint, and there’re home-made repellents too.
If none of these tactics seem appealing or even practical to a discriminating city dweller such as yourself, there’s always the old-fashioned swatter, and the screen window, and the round the clock vigilance. For those fortunate enough to not having to live in a hut, that should suffice, since our bug problem is mainly an annoyance.
But to large swaths of the planet, specially those facing a quickly changing weather pattern, it’s all a matter of survival. When serious diseases such as Dengue fever, or Malaria, or Chagas, and so many others, are real threats, almost everything is worth trying to stop them, even when some of the remedies create a whole new set of challenges.
As the climate continues to change in unexpected, and truly frightening, ways, insects have more than a leg up over us. They adapt faster and our homes offer them almost everything they’d ever want to remain alive and reproducing. That means that technology and human ingenuity – if not our changing appetites, if you catch the drift – will all be tested to the limit, to produce reliable ways to cope with their explosion.
In fact, if it serves to give you any perspective, among the huge variety of themes and issues Colltales has been covering, the subject of critters is one that has deserved almost the most posts. Everything seems to indicate that the trend will continue, so we’ll try to be brief about what’s out there about them, and how it may affect you.
INVASION OF THE BUGGY EYES
There are many sites online that correctly point to the importance of bugs to our own survival. Some have more of a sympathetic ring to them, such as bees, and others just get all the bad press, and for as many reasons as they usually have limbs. Most of such sites also praise nature for having created such an amazing system surrounding us.
You won’t find any of that here. Which doesn’t mean that we consider them our enemies. But for as much as we understand their right to live and thrive, when a cockroach shows up at our home, we admit it: we crush it. Sorry, but we could invoke many sanitary reasons as to why we do that almost by instinct. The real reason, though, is that we’re simply not that evolved.
The National Pest Management Association seems to agree with us. In a stern warning, they stated that ‘homeowners (or renters; bugs are not pickers) will likely encounter more pests than usual. Even areas of the country that are receiving rain aren’t in the clear, as standing rain water breeds mosquitoes, which can spread West Nile virus.’
Oh, yes, there are plenty of virus too, those microscopic versions of the same thing. But we’ll leave that for yet another post, for now. Their list of threats also includes scorpions, but we have our eye out (and hair standing in the back of our necks) for spiders, of course. The point is, though, how can you prevent that from happening?
GO AWAY HOME RECIPES
To many people, who’d rather live an uncomplicated life (bless them), going camping, or swimming, or picnicking mean only an extra stop at the local drugstore, for some bug spray. But despite makers of the oily solution have improved its smell, most of them are rich in something that we shouldn’t be slathering our bodies with: DEET.
The initials stand for an almost unpronounceable product developed by the U.S. Army for jungle warfare. Tested as a pesticide in the late 1940s, it’s used ever since, even though it’s proven to be toxic to birds and aquatic life. Even that you may use it sparsely (more)
* Bug Time
* Airborne Bites
* It Bugs Them
* Honey, We’ve Shrunk the Bees
and not often, you’re probably already thinking that it can’t be that good to you.
Instead, you can combine Witch Hazel with some herbal oil, plus some essence extract, such as vanilla (or your favorite, patchouli, you hippie), and voilá: an effective bug repellent that may not cause hair loss in the long run, plus you’ll be smelling like a cookie. Not bad, eh?
The world over, there are as many home-made strategies to deal with bugs as there are, well, if not bugs or people, at least countries around. In Mexico, for example, some restaurants keep plastic bags full of water to drive away pests. Whether it works or not, it’s not up to us to decide. But that it looks kind of interesting, well, who can argue with that?
On the other hand, if you do live on the other side of the income bracket, as millions in Africa and South America do, you may use a different solution: blue paint. Microcapsules with insecticides are stirred into the paint, and are slowly released throughout its up to four-year effective lifecycle. The process was created by Spanish chemist Pilar Mateo.
Awfully decorative too, in a whimsical, Smurffs’ village kind of way. The process has already been approved in some 15 countries, including Ghana, China, Germany, and her native Spain. The idea is turn it into an alternative to sprays, and as a complement to other cheap ways to combat mosquitoes, such as nets.
It’s much more than a matter of dollars and sense, of course. It’s been also a matter of saving lives, as the method has been proven effective against vinchucas, the bloodsucking insects that transmit Chagas. The disease can cause heart failure and other cardiac or intestinal complications, and is epidemic in several developing countries.
THE AIRBORNE BATTALION
Among all bugs, and ticks, and fleas, and even vermin species that may cause widespread misery and death, mosquitoes are arguably the kings of air-carrier transmitters. There are not bandwidth to list here all the infectious diseases and (skull shrinking, a.k.a. zika)virus and all sorts of malignant organisms that these flying bugs can carry around.
So when a company began developing a genetic-manipulation method, to create a special breed of mosquitoes, that would actually cause the demise of its peers, there was some cheers from public health professionals and those who share the brutal reality of communities that battle daily against the ever increasing sharp-protuberant spikes feeding on their flesh.
The process, specifically created to control the Dengue vector, the Aedes aegypti species, renders it sterile by adding a lethal gene inside its organism. It’s still capable to mate with wild females but the offspring dies. Brazil, the Caymann Islands, and Malaysia already released troves of them.
But despite tests showing that they did reduce dramatically the Aedes population, as with genetically-modified food, no one really knows the long-term impact that such ‘frankensquitos’ (sorry, we couldn’t help ourselves) may cause on nature. They may remain under control or they may wreck havoc on natural ecosystems, and then, we may be bracing for some nightmarish scenarios ahead.
As the company, Oxitec, certainly with an eye on their bottom line, eagerly awaits approval for a ‘restrict’ testing in the Florida Keys, many worry that we may be creating a monster, and not only to the environment. Anyone with a unchallenged stake in the bug-control market may stand to make a killing, since Oxitec would operate as a de facto monopoly.
BUZZING OFF & ZOOMING OUT
All this talk is obviously disturbing, in what it seems perfectly reasonable to envision a world of flying nightmares, coming to suck our bloods and infect us with all sorts of pestilence and decay. Oh, sorry, that was just the plot description of a number of TV series, and movies, and even pseudo-documentaries currently being shown everywhere.
Fear, as it’s been said, sells really well, and if something frighten us to no end, we’re sure to get some tickets for an Imax screening. It’s slightly more unsettling though to realize that this are not ‘plots,’ only a selected way of reading the news. For most, the make-believe of what’s on the screen has no bearing on what you may find inside your own bedroom.
Then again, too much information may cause numbness, and we don’t recommend operating heavy machinery under the influence of all this massive data, about the dangers of a changing natural world. It may come as a completely, and benign, we promise, surprise to you that bugs, and critters, and bloodsucking insects are definitely not out to get you. Not yet anyway.
So we’re going to struggle debating this notion that we need to ‘control’ nature, as if it’s even possible, and the opposite idea, which is completely out of fashion these days, that what we may actually need is to find ways of working with it. After all, all these excesses and brutal changes in temperature and environmental unbalances, are absolutely man made.
The bottom line is, we don’t have a bottom line. We don’t live our lives as big corporations, with a full agenda scheduled to propel us to the top of the food chain. We’re already there, so we need to deal with the attempts of everything else coming to take what we currently hold. And frankly, given all we’ve done so far to this planet, can we really blame it for trying it?
(*) Originally published on July 27, 2012.