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Mosquitoes. What Are They Good For?


We've spent a lot of time lately talking about the devastating impacts of Zika, a disease that is spread by mosquitoes. Those little buzzing insects can also be blamed for dengue fever, West Nile virus, malaria and lots of other horrible afflictions, not to mention their tendency to ruin picnics. So we wondered, is there anything good about mosquitoes? To find out, we have reached Professor Nora Besansky on Skype. She is a mosquito expert at Notre Dame University.

Hi there.

NORA BESANSKY: Hi. How are you?

SHAPIRO: Great. So are mosquitoes good for anything?

BESANSKY: Yes, they're good for lots of things. For what it's worth, only about a hundred - less than a hundred species transmit those horrible diseases that you've referred to out of thousands of species that live on every continent except Antarctica. And what those mosquitoes are good for, they're food for fish and other insect predators and birds. They pollinate plants.

SHAPIRO: Wait - they're pollinators? Really? I knew they were food, but, they're pollinators?

BESANSKY: Yes, indeed. And, you know, it's only the males that take a blood meal from their hosts, and often those hosts have nothing to do with humans. So there are mosquitoes that feed on snakes, frogs, birds. Only less than a hundred are a problem for humans.

SHAPIRO: Let me just play devil's advocate here. Is there anything that only eats mosquitoes, or if the mosquitoes disappeared, could the birds and the fish and the predatory insects and things just eat other things?

BESANSKY: Wow. That's a pretty good question. I wouldn't want to guess the consequences of eradicating all 3,500 or 4,000 species of mosquitoes. What I do feel comfortable saying is that if we target only a single species that's the most important transmitter of, let's say, malaria in the world then I feel pretty comfortable saying it would only have good consequences. (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: So we might not want to get rid of all 3,500 or 4,000 species of mosquito, but if, for example, we get rid of the Aedes Aegypti, which is the species that carries the Zika virus, you'd be OK with that?

BESANSKY: I think that would be a very good outcome, yes.

SHAPIRO: I know that generally scientists try not to place a value judgment on an entire species, but did I just hear you say that the Aedes Aegypti mosquito is a bad species? We can just stamp it with that label and get rid of it if possible?

BESANSKY: Yes, you did hear me say that.


BESANSKY: You know, let's put this in perspective, shall we? The human race has probably been responsible - unknowingly, inadvertently - in eliminating hundreds of thousands of species, mainly rain forest ones, by destroying their habitats. So in perspective here, we're talking about a single species of mosquito that's responsible for quite a lot of disease transmission and suffering in the world. I think - there you go. No, I don't feel bad about saying we should get rid of that one species.

SHAPIRO: That is biology professor and mosquito expert Nora Besansky speaking with us from Notre Dame University. Thank you very much.

BESANSKY: (Laughter). Thank you.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the original audio version of this story, Professor Besansky said only male mosquitoes take a blood meal from their hosts. In fact, it's females mosquitoes that take the blood meal.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: February 19, 2016 at 11:00 PM CST
In this story, Nora Besansky says only male mosquitoes take a blood meal from their hosts. In fact, it's female mosquitoes that take the blood meal.