No one in the world likes mosquitoes. They bite. They leave itchy spots. They carry diseases ranging from malaria to West Nile Fever which is the Next Big Thing in America, now that anxiety rashes from September 11 and anthrax scares have been shown up to be mere hysteria. Even dogs and birds hate them.
But you know all that. This article is not a defence of mosquitoes but an effort to explain why they exist at all. Everything except the human is there for a particular reason. When humans start tampering with size and distribution, then every creation is disturbed and becomes unnaturally large or small. So it is with the mosquito.
What good is a mosquito?
About 2,700 species of mosquitoes span the globe from the Sahara to the tropical forests of Brazil. Some like to feed at night. Others prefer morning meals. Many species bite people and animals, using the protein in the blood to reproduce. Some feed only on flower nectar. One species, Toxorhynchites, or predator mosquito, eats other mosquitoes. Unfortunately its range is limited (Probably the only import that I would approve of!)
Historically, mosquitoes have shaped the world’s nations and their wars. But I will deal with that in another piece someday. Suffice to say Napoleon, Alexander, the Nazis and a large number of other world predators were strongly influenced by this enemy. Then, their presence has kept people from wanting to live in some areas. This has left these places as refuges for other wild plants and animals to live.
Entomologists who study mosquitoes have discovered that one good thing male mosquitoes do is eat honeydew. Honeydew is the sticky stuff that covers many trees and the area around them in the summertime. Honeydew is aphid excrement. Think what a sticky place the world would be if male mosquitoes weren't cleaning it up!
Besides blood and honeydew, mosquitoes also eat a lot of plant nectar, which provides sugar as energy for flying. Like bees and other insects, mosquitoes pollinate plants as they collect their nectar. Entomologists have collected mosquitoes whose bodies were covered with pollen grains that could be traced to more than 30 species of flowering plants.
Mosquitoes are probably much more important as pollinators of wildflowers than we have realized. In the Arctic, for example, mosquitoes are the main pollinators of bog orchids. As waterborne larva, they eat algae and bacteria. Drastically reducing the number of mosquitoes could trigger an increase in the populations of other annoying gnats and biting flies, say pest management specialists.
But what about the females? After all, it is the females who suck our blood. Well, for one thing, baby mosquitoes make great fish food. In fact, you generally will not find mosquito larvae in places where fish or frogs live. So it's not so much that mosquitoes breed in stagnant water, as you often hear. Rather, they breed (successfully) in water that has no fish or frogs. Mosquito larvae and pupae are good food for many kinds of fish and insects such as dragonflies. Adult mosquitoes provide food for huge numbers of insect-eating birds and bats. In fact, some people encourage birds like Purple Martins, swallows and bats (Bats eat 600-1,000 insect pests each hour), to live nearby to help control mosquitoes. They’re part of a large food chain. Removing them might not decimate other insect and animal populations, but they'd be sorely missed. The good news is that only 1 out of every 200 mosquitoes survives long enough to reproduce.
But, they can go and be useful somewhere else. How do we keep them away from our homes and gardens? Without chemicals.
You know the standard suggestions: empty all the stagnant pools of water, cover your water tank, get rid of all the water round your home etc. But with so many lakes becoming polluted and so many rivers slowing down because of dams, with so many water bodies full of algae which mosquitoes love, you are still going to get mosquitoes. Here are some suggestions of how to keep them away from you and your home.
Smell is an important sense for mosquitoes trying to find a person or other animal to feed on. Mosquitoe repellents that rely on smell are the best. Citronella candles made from the essential oil of Citronella Grass, a close relative of Lemongrass are very effective. In fact, any strongly lemon-scented herb will work - lemon verbena, lemon-scented geranium, lemon balm etc - and really any strong-scented herb - lavender, rosemary, basil - will also deter them. But first, you MUST release those essential oils, either by rubbing them onto your skin, or by continually rubbing against the plant, or by burning the essential oils. One measly little candle, or one tiny little plant won't serve a large area, so you should have lots of them around your outside living area, placed where people will rub up against them as they walk past. Pennyroyal is one of the mints and has a lovely peppermint flavour. Its creeping habit makes it an ideal groundcover, particularly in those areas that are partially shaded. It also repels ants and mosquitoes very successfully. Rubbing the leaves of pennyroyal on the skin will also keep mosquitoes and flies away. Mosquitoes will not come too close to a basil orTulsi plant. Again, these may be planted by the back door or grown in a pot on a kitchen window sill. Brush the plant with the hand every so often, or as you pass by, to release the fragrance which you will enjoy and the flies and mosquitoes won’t. Some people rub catmint on the back of their necks and wrists when they work in the garden . I take the seeds of the Morpankhi plant, as most villagers do, and rub them on the back of my hands. Lemongrass applied on the ankles, wrists and the back of the neck just before dusk keeps them at bay in the evenings. Don't wear perfumes or scented deodorants. Mosquitoes have the same tastes as males!
When I bathe in the morning, just before I finish I pour a mug of water with lemon juice in it or lemongrass tea. Rubbing lemon peel on your skin, and garlic will deter them (and everyone else.)
Indoors, try placing the scented geranium, Pelargonium citrosum Vanieenii, at strategic locations such as near doors and windows. "Vanieenii" has a good reputation for warding off bugs. Many other scented geraniums besides "Vanieenii" also contain Citronella oils which help repel insects. There is a company in Hyderabad which supplies Citroen Geranium to all the nurseries. I once did a TV programme with the owner just to popularise it !
The Nepalese burn a herb called Loban on coal in their houses. Instead of burning something you could make a spray: 3 parts lemongrass (or citronella), 1 part thyme, 2 parts lavender, 1 part peppermint (or eucalyptus),
Mix together in a new plant sprayer (and dilute with water if desired). This mix also has the advantage of smelling pleasant and is safe for use around kids and pets.
Shake the mixture well before using if you decide to dilute it with water.
One of the things that I tried some yeas ago was to cut an onion into half and put it on my bedside tables on both sides. The mosquitoes did not come but the smell was not thrilling.
Colour is another deterrent. White works best against mosquitoes. Wear light-coloured clothing, as darker colours attract bugs...this is particularly true of blue denim jeans. Many insects are attracted by the colours blue and yellow, so avoid wearing these if possible. Mosquitoes are more attracted to women than to men, or to people who eat a lot of sugar. Always shut the doors and screened windows before dusk.
In the event mosquitoes were not repelled effectively, many herbs can be used to relieve the itching from bites. Dab freshly washed bites with lemon juice or cider vinegar. Before bedtime, apply lavender oil or cinnamon oil by rubbing on the affected area. As well as helping repel mosquitoes these oils also take away itching from bites.
There are lots of village and local mosquito repellents. Investigate local ancient customs; one tribe, the Karankawas, killed an alligator, skinned him, liquified the fat and slathered it on! Kept quite a few things away, one of which was mosquitoes!
- Mankea Gandhi