Mosquito: The Alaska State Bird

Darby and Shadow hope that the mosquitoes aren't this big

Theresa’s dad Jim likes to joke how we are safe from vampires in Alaska because of the 24 hours of daylight.  However, he forgot about the millions of other little blood suckers: mosquitoes.

Mosquitoes have an outsized reputation in Alaska.  Mosquitoes in Alaska are aggressive, voracious, and ubiquitous.  Ask most residents what the Alaskan state bird is, and they will respond, “The mosquito.”  There are 35 species of mosquitoes in Alaska, and almost all of the species bite humans.  Well, at least the female mosquitoes bite.  The male mosquitoes are just annoying. 

In general, the mosquitoes appear in Alaska around late May to early June and tend to be the large kind, nearly the size of small birds.  Not really, but they can be about the size of a bee.  Mosquitoes peak in most places around late June when they are typically of normal size but abundant quantity.  Locals say the worst of all mosquitoes are the tiny “no-see-ums” that arrive in July.  The problem with these tiny terrors is, like their name implies, you cannot easily see them and hence avoid or swat them.  You just suddenly and mysteriously itch like crazy.

Timm getting poked by a giant wood mosquito

The good news is that regular mosquito repellent like Off and Cutter do indeed work, something we’ve confirmed on our trip.  The bad news is that you have to cover every inch of your exposed body with a thick coating of repellent.  If you miss even a millimeter, the mosquitoes will find it.  Especially around your sock line, the top of your head (which is why it’s best to always wear a hat), and the palms of your hands.  And not to get into too much detail, but suffice to say that you must be very quick when nature calls and you drop your drawers to pee in the forest. 

We initially encountered mosquitoes in the Canadian Yukon.  Unbelievably, this was the first time on our entire trip that we had to apply mosquito repellent.  The mosquitoes were the worst around our campsites on Pine Lake and Kluane Lake, but they weren’t too bad on our hikes once we got up into the treeless tundra.  The most alarming incident was when a swarm of mosquitoes attacked me in a trail parking lot, but I was able to run away like a little kid.  Mosquitoes can only fly 2-3 miles per hour, which is why even a light breeze will keep mosquitoes at bay.

The mosquitoes became much more abundant and aggressive when we arrived in Alaska.  One time when we stopped at a lake to watch a moose and her two calves, I felt a burning sensation on my leg.  I looked down to discover a dozen mosquitoes feasting along a small strip of my leg just above the sock line where the repellent must have rubbed off.  The mosquitoes in Alaska also love to divebomb directly into our faces.  Unlike mosquitoes back home that float slowly toward me, land on my skin, and poke around for a while, these Alaskan mosquitoes strike in one swift movement, like a gunshot.  They especially love to bite my face around the eyes, where I generally avoid applying repellent. 

Interestingly, the mosquitoes weren’t that bad in the cities of Fairbanks and Anchorage.  Mosquitoes were also not much of a problem above the treeline, in the wind, and in cooler areas such as the Kenai Peninsula.  We’ve gotten in the habit of applying repellent immediately upon first exiting the RV each morning, then again multiple times throughout the day.  We also have to brush the mosquitoes off our dogs before they enter the RV.  And we have to go on occasional mosquito hunts to kill all the little buggers that somehow sneak into our RV.  They’re usually easy to spot flying around the windows looking for a way out.  It’s gross when we spot a mosquito whose body is engorged with blood.  We need to kill these suckers carefully to avoid a bloody mess on the window screen.

Moose with its own entourage of mosquitoes, in Chena River State Recreation Area

In spite of a mosquito’s voracious desire for blood, you may be surprised to discover that plant juices and nectars form the bulk of a mosquito’s diet.  Female mosquitoes seek mammal blood only as a source of nitrogen to produce their eggs.  Hence, mosquitoes are actually an important source of pollination for flowers and crops, especially in northern states where bee populations may be smaller.  Given the massive number of mosquitoes in some areas that have few mammals, scientists have concluded that some mosquito species don’t require blood for reproduction. 

Mosquitoes can suck up to a pint of blood per day from larger mammals like a moose, shown in the photo above.  We watched this moose feeding in Chena River State Recreation Area, and every time she dunked under the water, the mosquitoes would lift off her back in synchronized fashion, float above the water for a few seconds, then swarm back down when the moose resurfaced.

Poor Shadow with his nose covered in mosquitoes

Contrary to popular terminology, mosquitoes don’t actually bite you.  A mosquito pierces your skin with its proboscis, which is like a straw the mosquito uses to suck your blood.  The mosquito then searches for the nearest blood vessel under your skin.  When she finds a suitable blood vessel, the mosquito releases saliva into the wound to serve as an anti-coagulant to keep your blood flowing until she is finished with her meal.  Your body’s immune system recognizes this attack and releases histamine to fight against the mosquito’s saliva.  The histamine causes the affected blood vessels to swell into a red bump called a wheal.  The expanding blood vessels irritate the surrounding nerves, resulting in the all-too-familiar itch.

That familiar buzz you hear mosquitoes make is actually a love song.  Scientists have discovered that females use “harmonic matching” to evaluate potential mates.  Females beat their wings at about 400 hertz, whereas males beat their wings at about 600 hertz.  Mosquitoes can hear each other within 3 feet apart.  When a potential couple approaches each other, the female mosquito starts singing, and the male must match her song with perfect harmony or she will fly away.  Each mosquito species has its own song, which can reach all the way up to 1800 hertz, beyond the range of most humans.

Anyone who thinks that the little things don’t matter has never gone to bed with a mosquito in the room.

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