Field Notes: The Polar Field Services Newsletter

Mosquitoes

Emily Stone is a Chicago-based freelance writer  participating in a 16-day journalism fellowship at Toolik Lake through the Marine Biological Lab (MBL).

There’s the grab, the swat, the stomp, the clap and the always disappointing catch and release. These are the ways we attempt to exert control over the mosquitoes here. But it’s almost always futile. (In the course of writing that paragraph I had one successful clap and a catch and release – a grab with one hand that you slowly open only to see the bugger fly off – though I think I maimed him.)

This is a photo of one that I killed yesterday:

The mosquitoes here are the most enormous and plentiful I’ve ever seen or dreamt possible. (Just got one in a clap that fell onto my keyboard.) And they have gotten progressively worse each day. I’ve been heartened to hear from researchers that this is one of the worst years they’ve seen, and even the tough grizzled ones who refuse to wear head nets have started donning the black veils.

This picture is from a hike this evening:

Look at the sky. Those are all bugs.

One of the reporters bought a book on mosquitoes at a visitor center on our way up here. From it I’ve learned that:

Only the females bite.

Mosquitoes don’t need blood for food; they use it to nourish their eggs.

There are 3,450 species of mosquitoes, which contribute to the roughly 100 trillion alive at any moment.

Canadian researchers in the arctic stood still outside for a minute and counted 9,000 bites. At that rate, a person would lose half their blood – enough to kill them – in about an hour.

(Another journalist just walked into our work tent and pointed out the swarm lying in wait outside the screen door.)

DEET is the only thing that seems reasonably effective against the bugs, though even that doesn’t keep them totally at bay. And since the chemical is known to melt through nylon and plastic, most of us don’t like to put too much of it on our skin. I thought the three layers of shirts I had on yesterday would protect me from the pack that took up residence on my shoulder, but they managed to get their stingers through to my shoulder. The photo below is of my arm about 10 seconds AFTER it had been wiped clean of bugs. There were probably five times as many before I brushed them off.

(Reporter who just walked inside, spastically waving her arms around her face: “I feel like they’re eating my head.”)

The windows and ceiling of our van are covered with carcasses, as are the tables and floors in our work tent. One of the journalists posted this video of a slaughter in the van. No one seems much phased by bugs banging into their face mid-conversation, though the ones that go directly into your mouth and up your nose are still disconcerting.

Mostly, it’s the constant buzzing and swarming that drives me slowly mad. I keep thinking I’m going to reach a point of Zen when I find myself peacefully accepting the omnipresent bugs. It hasn’t happened.