Agents of SWAT to battle buzzing terror

It’s a battle that’s to be waged by Winnipeg’s youth, who will also enlist their parents as combatants.

Who will they be fighting?

Well, it’s the city’s annual buzzing terror — mosquitoes.

On June 5, the city’s Insect Control Branch attended Forest Park Elementary School  to deliver an educational presentation about bugs and invite students and their parents to join the fight against mosquitoes as honourary Agents of SWAT (Standing Water Action Team), a program that is in its second year.

The students received an action oriented comic book/colouring book that examines the mosquito’s life cycle and explains how to become an Agent of SWAT to reduce mosquito populations in their neighbourhoods.

“We want to educate and recruit kids to join Agents of SWAT so they learn at an early age that by draining, dumping and covering standing water in their yards from May until August, they can significantly reduce mosquitoes,” said Ken Nawolsky, the superintendent of insect control. “Once someone gets in the habit of eliminating standing water, that positive behaviour is likely to continue throughout their life.

According to the Insect Control Branch, 50 per cent of Winnipeg’s mosquitoes come from standing water on private property. A single birdbath filled with standing water can generate as many as 1,000 adult nuisance mosquitoes.

The branch is encouraging Winnipeggers to drain, dump or cover water-filled containers such as buckets, rain barrels, birdbaths and eavestroughs in the spring  and after a rainfall to reduce mosquito populations.

“As an Agent of SWAT,” said Nawolsky, “your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to fight mosquitoes before they hatch. If Winnipeggers do their part in eliminating standing water, all of Winnipeg will benefit by having fewer mosquitoes.”

I certainly hope the city’s children and others are mobilized to battle the annual nuisance.

Winnipeg actually has a usually successful mosquito control program.

The war on mosquitoes waged by the Insect Control Branch has taken Winnipeg from the doldrums of being considered the mosquito capital of Canada, if not North America, to the ecstacy of becoming a city that has often brought  buzzing pest numbers to a minimum.

In 2010, the mosquitoes were so bad in this city that then Mayor Sam Katz feared it would effect Winnipeggers’ quality of life and promote an outbreak of West Nile Disease, which is borne by the Culex tarasalis species of the winged insects.

Nawolsky said that the mosquito forecast for the next few weeks is relatively good, as the count in city traps has been zero over the past  month. But don’t become complacent — they’re coming, especially if there’s plenty of rain. In this eventuality, only if everyone becomes an Agent of SWAT will their numbers be decimated.

The reality is that, since time immemorial, mosquitoes have wreaked havoc in Manitoba upon man and beast, with the result that the insect has become the stuff of legends.

According to a First Nations legend, hundreds of years ago there was a famine and offerings were made to the Great Spirit 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 people 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, they killed her as she ate a piece of meat.

Time passed without any disaster striking, so the people began to believe the old woman had deceived them. But  one day, a hunting party chased a deer 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.”

According to another First Nations legend, there was originally just one mosquito, which was fed with blood by the spirits until his belly became so large that it burst, and from it came forth the myriads of mosquitoes that thrive today.

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 example of the species 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.”

Many have suggested that local mosquitoes are so big that they should be declared Manitoba’s provincial bird. Some have even said that local mosquitoes are so big 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 about “two Winnipeg gentlemen,” who had returned by train 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 newspaper’s editor attributed this tale to the invigorating air of the North-West (prairies), exerting its “influence on the brain.”

Of course, the carrying off of babies by insects rivaling birds in size, as well as the slaughter of two mosquitoes requiring a railway flat car to carry them, is pure fiction, but no one can dispute the fact that a mosquito plague of Biblical proportions is usually normal in much of Manitoba. Winnipeg in recent years is the exception, although there have been times when their numbers periodically increased.

While the residents of Komarno (Ukrainian word for mosquito) have erected a statue in honour of the buzzing terrors, the majority of Manitobans can be forgiven for not holding the same reverence for one of the province’s more irritating signs of summer.

But what has happened in the past, may not be true in the future, as long as action is taken by Winnipeggers to assist in providing a welcome reprieve from the wrath of the winged bloodsuckers. Become an Agent of SWAT!