Magazine article The Spectator

The Great Mosquito Crusade

Magazine article The Spectator

The Great Mosquito Crusade

Article excerpt

Tony Gould


by Andrew Spielman and Michael D'Antonio Faber, L10.99, pp.247, ISBN 0571209807

Mosquitoes are not generally regarded as objects of beauty. Most of us try to avoid them, or, if we encounter them, swat them. But if you spend your life studying them, as the Harvard scientist Andrew Spielman has, then their elegant design and functionality become a matter of marvel. There are 2,500 different species and some of their habits are, well, to say the least, bizarre. The male of one New Zealand species, for instance, does not even wait for the nubile mosquito to emerge from the pupa before attacking it with such force that the pupa splits open:

The mosquito inside is helpless, because his or her legs have not yet freed themselves. If the emergent mosquito is a male, the marauder lets go. If it is a female, an event that is essentially a rape ensues ...

One may speculate how much the salacious tone of this owes to Spielman's co-- author, 'Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist' Michael D'Antonio (whose name is unfortunately misspelt on the back flap of Faber's jacket). But for the most part the facts are allowed to speak for themselves in this book and sensationalism is kept to a minimum.

Our interest in mosquitoes stems from the diseases they are instrumental in transmitting - malaria, yellow fever and dengue fever, in particular. Readers interested in medical history may be familiar with the story of how de Lesseps's attempt to repeat his Suez success by building a Panama canal was foiled by malaria and yellow fever-carrying mosquitoes, and will certainly know something of Ronald Ross, the 19th-century British Indian doctor who was credited with establishing beyond question the link between malaria and mosquitoes. But these and other stories bear retelling and are well summarised here.

According to Spielman and D'Antonio, every 12 seconds a malaria-infected child dies somewhere in the world despite all the efforts that have been made to eliminate the pest and control the disease. The attempt to rid the world of mosquitoes by the intensive spraying of the supposedly ,safe' DDT was famously challenged by Rachel Carson, whose Silent Spring (1962) was crucial to the development of environmental consciousness. …

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