1. An Epic Summer
They are coming. There is no doubt that they are coming. What we don’t know is when they will come and how many there will be.
The last outstanding question is: Are we prepared? From a public-health standpoint, that is, and from the standpoint of dealing with seriously annoying things. Because mosquitoes are both a major health hazard and about the most irritating creatures known to man. Even ticks are easier to get along with, which is saying a lot, given that they are bloodsuckers, too.
Biologists call mosquitoes commensals, from the Latin indicating that we share the same table. The table is our lives, in the summer. The meal is our blood.
Most winters thin the mosquito population. When weather is warmer, mosquitoes tend to thrive. This winter, as is well known, there was no winter.
2. The Sewer Skeeter
Many mosquitoes are already here, of course, waiting down the street or somewhere back in that abandoned lot where construction has stopped, in your park’s puddles or the suburban woods, anywhere there is some water, any amount really, ranging from the rainwater in a soda cap or a garbage-can lid to the gallons filling a backyard swimming pool. And they are also in the sewers. A lot of them. Those are the ones that the city seems to worry about most: the sewer skeeters.
Between the metal grate you see on street corners and the pipe below that carries water from the grate into the sewer system is a peculiar structure called a catch basin—a chamber designed to catch debris before it clogs our pipes. At the bottom, each catch basin can hold a few feet of water, perfect for mosquito eggs to float in, with air warm enough to keep female mosquitoes alive throughout the winter. These creatures not only don’t mind water that is not exactly pure like a mountain stream; they prefer it.
The catch basin is one of those things we think help separate us from natural ecosystems, when in fact it only expands them. If God, say, were to ask humans to create a system with which to breed mosquitoes, a sewer system relying on catch basins to filter debris might be it. God did not ask us to do that, but we did it anyway. We also went and created an entire landscape filled with cracks and crevices and ditches and underground chambers with hardly any mosquito predators in them. The subway is an especially great place to be a mosquito: In 1998, entomologists in England announced a new species living in the London Underground, which they named Culex pipiens molestus. Unlike the outdoor version, these mosquitoes cannot hibernate and die in the cold. But in the tube they don’t need to hibernate, or encounter the cold, so their underground life cycle can continue uninterrupted. An apartment building on West 84th Street got infested with these skeeters a few years ago, leaving those who live there with welts, and the bugs won’t leave, since they’re protected from the winter by the building walls.
One female mosquito generally produces about 200 eggs, sometimes connected in rafts as wide as a match head and as long as the fingernail on a pinkie. The new female mosquitoes will themselves soon be laying about 200 eggs. They can lay a batch of eggs as often as every three or four days, in the right conditions, which means a single female mosquito in May could multiply into many thousands come August. (Some will die, naturally, but if the world were a math problem, that mosquito would be millions upon millions by September.) And if an early spring means that a particular catch basin starts the season holding twenty mosquitoes instead of just one—well, that’s a big difference. Especially in terms of what the mosquitoes might be carrying, as far as disease goes.
3. The Scourge in Context
In the fifties, when we sprayed DDT from trucks and covered marshes with oil in hopes of killing larvae, clouds of mosquitoes were so thick on the Jersey shore “you couldn’t tell Tom from Dick,” one mosquito-control worker told Popular Science. In 1984, after a mild winter and a wet spring, the New York mosquito population quadrupled, and residents in the Rockaways were shutting themselves indoors to avoid the bugs.
How biblical will it be this time around? “Everybody’s talking about how bad it could be,” says Jim Skinner, owner of A&C Pest Management. “You know when you have a cold winter, regardless of the species, you get a good kill. And so without a winter, it should be a really good year for insects. And mammals, too. We’ve seen an uptick in mice already.”