For many folks, summer in Montana is the annual payoff for… well, the rest of the year. If you’re like my partner, who was raised in Bozeman, the three months of unadulterated sunshine is worth sticking around Montana for. Yet nothing can ruin a lakeside camping trip faster than the familiar tinny buzz of hundreds of mosquitoes seeking a blood meal.
I’m a realist, and my appreciation for insects of all kinds does not cloud the fact that mosquitoes are considered some of the deadliest animals on the planet. Ecologists and disease specialists seem to be locked in an ongoing debate as to whether or not they are truly ecologically beneficial and if we would just be better off without them.
While the argument for eradicating mosquitoes entirely has strong advocates, I always have been, and probably always will be, of the opinion that ecosystem manipulation is a terrible idea. Species evolve to fill ecological niches, and if one is removed, something else will move in to fill that niche; the most nefarious role that mosquitoes play, is of course, spreading deadly diseases while searching for their next blood meal. But they play other important ecological roles that are often overlooked, so before you break out the 100% DEET, hear me out.
You’ve probably already guessed that mosquitoes are a food source for many birds, small mammals, reptiles; anything with an appetite for bugs, really. During peak season, mosquitoes outnumber most animals on earth, with their biomass reaching 96 million pounds in Alaska alone. For Alaskan insectivores, that’s a 96 million pound snack bar.
But it’s not just the clouds of adults offering up a tasty insect buffet. Mosquito larvae are aquatic, and play a crucial role in freshwater ecosystems.
Mosquito larvae feed on decaying organic material in their freshwater habitats, filtering floating detritus into a nitrogen-rich waste product that is necessary for plant growth. Additionally, they provide a tasty, nutrient-dense snack for many other freshwater inhabitants, including fish and amphibians, as well as larger, predacious invertebrates like odonates, fishing spiders and water striders.
So yes, mosquitoes are an important link in the food web, but they play a second ecological role: They’re pollinators.
That’s right, those pesky bloodsuckers help our plants grow; in fact, nectar is the main food source for mosquitoes. Out of the 3,500 species of mosquito, only a few have a vampiric reputation, and within those species, it’s only the females who vant to suck your blood. The females have evolved to seek out a blood meal in order to provide their eggs with the vital and necessary proteins they cannot get from nectar alone.
While you might consider the aforementioned mosquito hordes of Alaska to be an absolute nightmare, the native plant species (which already contend with a short growing season) rely on the vast numbers to proliferate.
So the next time you’re being eaten alive on a camping trip, try this exercise in mind-over-matter: remember that mosquitoes have important ecological roles as well, it’s not a personal vendetta against you.
That said, I won’t blame you for giving them a good thwack either.