Saturday, 18 April 2009

The Mentality of the Culicidae

It's 3am, and I'm awake. Again.

I used to be the type of person who would lie awake at night thinking about things. I have this goal of "understanding", so puzzling things out is a natural instinct. And hey, I used to have things to think about. The MUD, for instance. Why on earth did this player say that? Was that what he thought of me? Why would he think that, did they really think I was so selfish? How could I make them all see the person I really was? Et cetera. Or when I had a crush on a boy when I was fourteen, now, that really gave me something to think about. But that was long ago, and it's not why I'm awake tonight.

No, tonight there's a mosquito in my bedroom. Again.

Now, I like to think of myself as a nature-lover. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of visiting the Botanical Gardens with my family, being taught about the different trees and flowers, feeding the ducks. When I was lonely in primary school, there was a patch of buttercups far across the field from where everyone played, and I would retreat there when the age difference got too intrusive for me, and keep the bees company. And I like cute and cuddly animals as much as the next girl.

Actually, I've probably quite a bit more tolerance for the wildlife than your average person; too much David Attenborough as a teenager, I suppose. (No, you can never watch too much David Attenborough.) So, in accordance with his enthusiastic attitude, I find it all interesting, curious and worth preserving (although I haven't gone vegetarian). This means that I don't mind large spiders, because the big ones we get here are harmless; in a safe environment, I wouldn''t mind handling a snake. To me, ants' nests are a marvel of nature, as you can see in this video, although obviously they're best left alone. I like earthworms, in theory, although I've never bothered digging them up to go look at them. By a weird extension, I like colorectal surgery. (Seeing the patient's innards spread out on view... Pink and wriggly? Happy guts. Ooh, that bit looks sick, poor thing. Let's cut it out. The rest of them still happy? Happy guts.)

But well, mosquitoes are the lone exception. They spread malaria, causing a worldwide disease burden. Not to mention myriad other diseases. They don't support any ecosystem, as far as I know, because they're a pest feeding on humans and animals. They seek me and my mother and sister out preferentially, and we get huge welts that last for days and sting at night. I don't believe in "evil" in the malignant, people-hating sense, but ... mosquitoes are the enemy and must die.

Which brings us to The Hunt.

The door is closed. The lights are on. All wooden surfaces get checked. Then Smith gets covered in blankets up to his face, and my arms and head are free to act as bait ... and to smack them out of the air. I used to be reasonably good at it. When I was on rotation on the North Coast, in a house with broken fly-screens, I'd sit for an hour before bed and get about six or seven of them each night. Then I could sleep knowing that with the door shut, no more would come in.

These days, though ... I don't know what it is. Maybe I'm older and slower. Maybe I'm tired more often. Maybe the mosquitoes are faster, where we live now. But many hours over many nights have been fruitless, and I usually end up just putting a blindfold on and going to sleep with the lights on. I don't think I've caught a mosquito this year, and there have been plenty.

So I've had plenty of time to think about the intelligence of the mosquito. Obviously it's not on a par with the human mind. I must be some kind of animist, because I usually like to think of things as having a personality - trees, germs, guts (as above), supermarket trolleys, you name it. But well, I don't even like to dignify a mosquito by giving it its proper gender (only the female ones bite). No, this is not your average gravid female looking for nourishment for her eggs, and this is not a bitch-slap fest. It is an IT. Kill it.

There used to be a catchy television advertisement for insect spray, that featured an anthropomorphic, singing housefly. I'm Louie the fly, Louie the fly, straight from rubbish tip to you! Spreading disease, with the greatest of ease ... But when you're in a room with a mosquito ... well, it's not exactly a planning genius.

"Right, we go around the bedpost here and between the slats, and they'll be straight ahead. Ignore the golden-haired one, the Asian one has a better blood group, taste that carbon dioxide on her breath ... So we're going to zoom over the face, we don't want her to wake up, focus on the hands, arms, anything but the head, you got me? And do not, I repeat, DO NOT land on the hair - it's a trap. They're not called hair triggers for nothing. Okay, you ready?"

No, I like to think of a mosquito more as a machine. In its nervous system and what counts for a brain, it has, what, ten thousand neurones? A hundred thousand? I don't really have a clue, although I bet it's not in the billions. And there are probably only a few basic impulses - eat, mate, hide. Each one would have excitatory and inhibitory factors, and you can kind of predict what they are.

Anyone who's done neuroscience probably knows what I mean by that, but here's an analogy. Mating aside, let's say that 'hide' and 'feed' are at opposite ends of a dial. What the mosquito does depends on where the dial is at a particular time, and that depends on the environment. The time of day is one factor pushing the dial towards one end or another - feeding at dawn or dusk, and hiding the rest of the day. The presence of food pushes it towards feeding - I've just looked it up, and apparently carbon dioxide and oct-1-en-3-ol in breath and sweat are strong attractants. I used to watch them come up to me, mesmerised, tracking along the trail of my breath - conveniently, right in front of my face so I could smack them between my hands.

Obviously being swatted at is a fast swing towards the "life-preservation" end of the dial, but also, the presence of a good place to hide will attract it. I've learned that mosquitoes like to hide on dark wood-grain surfaces, and I used to be able to go hunt them down on my bedroom door or the bookshelf. (Now my bed is wooden and there's an underneath for them to hide. Grr.) And, to my despair, having the light on (so I can see it!) seems to be a strong push towards the 'go hide' end. Maybe having a 35 watt fluorescent for sewing and reading as the top light (100W incandescent equivalent) wasn't such a good idea.

Other than that, I'm guessing. I suspect that while light is a fast swing to the hiding end, darkness is only a slow push in the other direction. I wonder if the strength of the light is a factor in the speed. Sometimes I wonder if they're tempted to hide on my hair, being a dark, grainy surface. I haven't yet gone as far as digging out my tiny stash of acupuncture pins and opening a vein to attract it despite the light, but tonight I'm tempted. It did come out when I had a nosebleed earlier tonight, after all.

That only accounts for about fifty neurones in total, so obviously a mosquito is more complicated than that. But I've got a hundred billion ... I win, right? Well, that's what I'm hoping...

neeed ... sleeeep.....

1 comment:

  1. More neurones means more complicated dials which means more indecision, procrastination, doubt, confusion, and internal conflict. Not good attributes for a hunter, I'm afraid.

    And the ant colony video had me picking my jaw up off the ground in amazement.


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the angel Jean