Tiny vampires

Manitoba children can be forgiven if they are heard chanting, “Rain, rain, go away/Come again another day.”

While the province has in recent days been incessantly under a deluge of rain, the only critters benefitting seem to be ducks, geese and mosquitoes. But, while an increase in the number of ducks and geese can be a cause of celebration (well, maybe not the poop-dumping-on-grass Canada geese) the same cannot be said of mosquitoes. Standing water is what mosquitoes love and standing water is what we have in the millions of litres. The mosquito numbers have increased so dramatically that Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz presented a motion (passed 13-1) at a meeting of the executive policy committee to review the city’s adult mosquito control policy.

“Winnipeggers look forward to enjoying our wonderful summers and we need to do our part to ensure everyone can enjoy them,” said Katz. “With the severe rainfalls combined with the heat we’re experienced, we’ve seen a steady rise in mosquito populations that are directly affecting the quality of life and potential health of our citizens.”

The mayor’s motion called for a review of the adulticiding factor analysis guidelines, the criteria for conducting barrier treatments, and the impact of anti-pesticide buffer zones, the last issue being the most controversial. One neighbour holds in his or her hands the fate of many nearby households because of the 100-metre rule which, upon request to the city, prevents fogging to kill mosquitoes within the proscribed radius. While one person may not want the fogging, it prevents others living next door from enjoying the pleasure of a backyard BBQ. The presence of so many annoying tiny vampires can be the cause of intense irritation among neighbours with conflicting views about fogging.

The health hazard referred to by Katz is West Nile carried by the mosquito species Culex tarsalis. In 2003, 142 Manitobans were infected with the virus — 35 became seriously ill with the disease while two people died. In neighbouring Saskatchewan, 12 people died. 

The presence of the West Nile virus gives Manitobans one more reason to hate mosquitoes, a dislike that has been part of this province’s history since the arrival of First Nations people in the province. They even tell the tale that the mosquito was created as a punishment. The New Nation, August, 1870, said “Red River Indians have a curious legend respecting the origin of mosquitoes.” According to the legend, hundreds of years ago there was a famine and offerings were made to the Great Spirit for help to ease  their hunger. Two hunters came upon a white wolverine, “a very large animal,” which they killed. An old woman jumped out of the skin and said she was a “Manito,” and promised them plenty of game to hunt as long as they treated her well. The famine passed, but the natives came to dislike the old woman because she continually took the best pieces of game for herself. Despite her warning that a great calamity would befall them should they break their agreement, they killed her as she ate a piece of reindeer.

Time elapsed without any problems so the people began to believe the old woman had deceived them. One day, a hunting party chased a reindeer which led them to the spot where the old woman had been killed. They “came upon her skeleton, and one of them in derision kicked the skull with his foot. In an instant a small spiral vapour-like body arose from the eyes and ears of the skull ... that attacked the hunters with a great fury and drove them to the river for protection ... the air became full of avengers of the old woman’s death. The hunters upon returning to camp, found all the Indians suffering terribly from the plague. Ever since that time the Indians have been punished by the mosquitoes for their wickedness to their preserver, the Manito.”

Henri Julien, a 21-year-old illustrator sent to cover the march west of the North West Mounted Police in 1874, described the “Manitoba mosquito” as the worst species of the tiny insect in the world. “They insinuate themselves under your clothes, down your shirt collar, up your sleeve cuffs between the buttons of your shirt bosom. And not one or a dozen, but millions at a time.”

No Manitoban living today would argue with the observation of Julien. Winnipeg has gained unflattering recognition as the mosquito capitol of Canada. In fact, many have suggested that local mosquitoes are so big that they should be declared Manitoba’s provincial bird. Some have even claimed that Manitoba’s mosquitoes are so large that they can carry off babies.

Rev. George Young (1821-1910), who established a mission church in 1871 in Winnipeg, related that one prairie wit had commented that the local mosquitoes were so big that “many of them weigh a pound.”

The Brandon Sun Weekly of May 8, 1884, told a story of “two Winnipeg gentlemen” who had returned by train from the Rockies and related that they had been on a mosquito hunting excursion. “They assert that in the valleys the mosquitoes are in full bloom, and so large that they managed to slaughter two only after a desperate struggle. We understand that they brought the carcasses home with them, but we have not learned whether a flat car was found necessary for the purpose or not.” The Sun Weekly editor attributed this tale to the invigorating air of the prairies exerting its “influence on the brain.”

Of course, insects rivaling birds in size and the slaughter of two mosquitoes requiring a railway flat car to carry them is pure myth, but no one can dispute the fact that mosquitoes can be a plague of Biblical proportion whenever one ventures unprotected outside on a calm, warm summer evening.

While the residents of Komarno — the Ukrainian word for mosquito — have erected a statue in honour of the buzzing terrors, the majority of Manitobans can be forgiven for not having the same reverence for one of the province’s most irritating summer denizens.

The problem with much of southern Manitoba is that it is relatively flat prairie with clay subsoils that prevent water from being absorbed into the ground. Water collects on the surface and provides an ideal breeding habitat for mosquitoes. The presence of the tiny vampires was deemed so irksome by early European explorers and settlers that they filled diaries and journals with accounts of their antics, revealing the absolute futility of attempting to escape them.

Manitoba children can now be heard adding to their familiar chant about the rain: “Skeeters, skeeters go away/Come again another day.”