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How to Love Mosquitoes

On attempting the impossible... in eighteen bites

WHILE LIVING IN SEOUL a decade ago, I attended a class with a Buddhist nun who said she’d found a way to stop mosquitoes from biting her head. Stroking her gleaming skull, Yeo Yeo said, “I love my Gillette Mach3. Know why? No cuts. When I became a nun twenty years ago, I had so many cuts! Meditating outside in the Korean summer with all the mosquitoes—it was agony. They bit at every wound.”

“They only came for me, not the other nuns,” she continued. “For a long time, I couldn’t figure out why. Then I realized I’d been killing their brothers and sisters each night in my room. I felt so bad. I went and apologized to the mosquitoes. For hours and hours, I bowed to them. I said, ‘Thank you! Thank you! You never killed me. Thank you!’ I was never bitten by a mosquito again.”

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She looked around the temple hall filled with people attending the Introduction to Buddhism course. “You don’t believe me. Ah! But it’s true.”

I want to believe her story. So I’ve decided I’ll go outside with no mosquito spray on my skin. I’ve decided I’ll learn to love mosquitoes, to not kill them. 

In truth, I know very little about these insects beyond perhaps that both males and females feed on sweet things, like plant juices, nectar, and sap, but only blood-loving females feed on caribou and frogs and us. And that each year they kill more people than do all the combined vipers, scorpions, and fellow humans on Earth. 

To learn more, I read a Scientific American essay titled “Are You a Magnet for Mosquitoes?” As I understand it, our mammalian breaths are beautiful rivers of carbon dioxide to these insects. When they smell our odor, the bacteria on our skin, they feel as heady as when I smell clover. Intoxicated, the females come near. They want to be close to this magic. So, they land on our limbs. They pierce their way in. 

I am so happy thinking about this on the sofa. Tomorrow I will go out and be—if not loved—desired. 

 

IN THE MORNING I GO STRAIGHT to the creek on the edge of the Canadian mountain town where I now live. The wood lily stalks nod, wet with dew. The petals of the big pink rose are full of water beads that pool together like mercury. And the mosquitoes landing on my arms and ankles notice things about me that my husband never will. I imagine they’re perceiving something of the musky scent of truffles, or chanterelles, in my breath and sweat. Because alongside carbon dioxide, what mosquitoes smell on our bodies is octenol—mushroom alcohol. 

The females landing on my shoulders are ultimately interested in the protein in my blood. It helps them gain the energy they need to fill their abdomens with eggs. Soon they will lay those eggs in anything wet they can find—in puddles and plants, tin cans and flowerpots. But not quite yet. First, they will build tiny bonfires on my legs. I cannot stand this itching, this burning sensation, though perhaps I deserve to feel it.  How many of them did I slay those summer nights in Greece, when my roommates and I stood on our beds and used books to open up their bodies like Rorschach flowers against the pages? 

I walk away from the creek feeling terrible, saying Sorry, sorry to the mosquitoes. Sitting down by the train tracks, I try again to love them. But the buzz of their wings in the air is too distracting to focus.  

How to love this sound? Two artists have already tried. In 2009 Robin Meier and Ali Momeni created an installation using tiny microphones to amplify the sound of mosquito wing beats.

Males have auditory receptors in their bushy antennae to hear the whine of the females. Perhaps to facilitate copulation mid-flight, they’re able to synchronize their wing movements to within a millisecond or less of potential sexual partners. 

When they smell our odor, the bacteria on our skin, they feel as heady as when I smell clover. Intoxicated, the females come near. They want to be close to this magic. So, they land on our limbs. They pierce their way in. 

In various galleries, Meier and Momeni played an artificial stimulus sound to a small group of mosquitoes. In this case, the stimulus was a recording of traditional Indian Dhrupad singing (which, to untrained ears, might sound like mosquitos buzzing). When the males heard this noise, they acted as if aroused by a female mosquito. They matched their wing beats to the sound while a gallery audience listened to the tiny orchestra via loudspeakers. 

Visitors were invited to quietly interact by offering a fingertip for a mosquito to land on. They were asked to excite the mosquitoes with their breaths. A work of art that was also a love song: the name of the exhibit was Truce: Strategies for Post-Apocalyptic Computation.

As I walk back home along the train tracks, the mosquitoes look spun from gold as they stream toward me in the widening light. As they needle at my arms, I try disassociating, and for a moment I can see these females as elegant. Especially this one, moving her legs about delicately on my shirt, pressing her mouthpart again and again to the cotton hem as she seeks out my blood. When she finds the skin of my wrist, I watch her transparent body swell a ruby red. 

When she’s finished,  I pause in the weeds outside my apartment to count my new bites. Nine on one shoulder, eight on the other. My husband comes out and places a thumb in the inner corner of my eye. He tells me I’m bleeding. I have eighteen bites at least. I do some quick math and find that if mosquitoes lay between one or two hundred eggs at a time, I may have just helped make a couple thousand mosquito babies. 

The aquatic-stage dragonflies that thrive on mosquito larvae will appreciate this. So will the spiders who catch the adults in their webs. As will the swallows and warblers, the vireos and swifts. The fish and frogs, salamanders, hummingbirds, lizards, and bats. And the Arctic orchids that rely on mosquito pollination—they’ll love it too. 

What’s this feeling rising now? Maybe it’s stupidity. Maybe it’s love. 

Ailsa Ross’s writing on people, nature, and art has been featured in The Guardian, BBC History, Outside, ARTnews, and others. Born and raised in the north of Scotland, she now lives on Treaty 4 territory in the Canadian Badlands.