Is it so wrong to want baby blood-suckers to die?
I know I should repent. It just seems wrong for me to rejoice in the misfortune of others. But I have to admit that I was pleased when I first learned that mosquitoes can get sick.
It still tickles me, in some perverse way. It seems so right that at the moment mosquitoes are biting me, they themselves may be being bitten by little, arthropod parasites called mites.
I wasn’t as happy to learn that almost all insects can get sick, and that there are mites sucking blood from my bees as well. Like mosquitoes, bee mites also can spread diseases. Yes, just like us, insects can get bacterial infections and virus infections, as well as suffer from personal violence and traffic accidents. It’s almost like disease and death are biological or something.
Mosquitoes can get food poisoning. Isn’t that cool? I don’t know if you have ever had food poisoning. If you have, then the thought of a mosquito having it is almost fun. One type of food poisoning is caused by eating a toxin. The bacteria don’t necessarily grow inside the victim. The bacteria grow in the food and produce the toxin as a waste product. It’s the bacteria’s waste that makes you sick.
Now, repeat after me, bu-sill-us, thir-ing-en-sis, is-rail-en-sis: Bacillus thuringensis israelensis. Very good! If you practice several times you can use it at the party tonight to impress everyone. I suggest you do that early in the evening though, before too many drinks. Otherwise you might tend to spray. On the other hand, you could just call it by its nickname, Bti.
“So what is Bti?” you ask. Even if you didn’t ask, I am going to tell you. It’s a bacterium that produces a toxin that makes mosquitoes have diarrhea. If mosquitoes get diarrhea, they dehydrate and die. While the toxin is a chemical, it is not quite the same thing as the chemicals used in pesticides that have a broad-spectrum of activity against all kinds of living things.
It is a naturally occurring compound, produced in nature, which irritates the intestinal linings of some insects. But it does not seem to affect the intestinal linings of vertebrates such as fish, fowl, pets or humans.
The trick in using Bti is to get the mosquitoes to eat it. Adult mosquitoes fly all over the place, hide a great deal of the time, and seldom stop off at local restaurants to dine together. When they do get together for a big dinner, they are not dining on Bti, they are dining on me.
However, mosquito babies are more gregarious. It’s not so much because they are sociable. It’s because the only place they can survive is in standing water, and standing water only occurs in certain areas. Also, baby mosquitoes are filter feeders. That means they simply strain the water they live in for whatever might be there for their food. So, if we put Bti in the stagnant water they live in, it will be fed upon by the baby mosquitoes and they will get food poisoning.
Go ahead. You can even drink Bti-treated stagnant water if you want.
Bti does affect the digestive systems of some other insects. There are few other insects, however, that live in the same environment as mosquito larvae, that are also filter feeders, or that seem to be affected by the toxin. Also, because it is a biologically produced protein, it breaks down in the environment within just a few days.
Bti is sometimes used on other insects when it can be delivered in such a way that the insect will eat it. This usually means it is effective against baby, or larval stages. In some preparations, it can be used against grub worms, lettuce and cabbage pests, and so forth.
Somehow it seems wrong that all this feels so right. Does this make me a bad person?
# # #
Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Mesa State College.