Three testers exposed their repellent-treated arms to 200 mosquitoes for 3 minutes, then counted the number of bugs that bit them. If none bit, the testers repeated the process every half-hour until at least one mosquito bit during two successive exposures. — Consumer Reports
Our arms are secured in the transparent entomological vasculum before the flies are released. Mosquitoes, having two wings, are flies; most insects have four. I can hear them before I see them, their high-pitched female hum. Those two, veined, multicolored wings are moving at more than a thousand times a second, a mating song for the absent males who have no role in this experiment. It’s only the females who require a blood meal.
They burst into the vasculum like a flower exploding to the sun. I try to count them, not to hold my employers to their word but to see them, to distinguish one from the next. I can’t, of course, count them; not quite. But I can see them well enough to tell the Anopheles from the Culex, the Aedes from the Anopheles but not so easily from the Culex.
Once they land, the Aedes and the Culex will hold their bodies similarly, rigid from proboscis to halteres, parallel to the skin. Yet once they land, I will also see the silver thorax of the Aedes and its spiracular bristles and the female’s protracted cerci. I will recognize as well as I would my own mother this hardy beauty that breeds in old tires and in 1900 killed at the age of thirty-four the valiant Dr. Jesse Lazear, as he was researching the same yellow fever bestowed upon him by the Aedes aegypti.
Imagine, to be a scientist and to die for your science. To sacrifice your life for the science of healing. What we’re doing here today–Amy and Dick, strangers to one another and to me, and I–is not healing but prevention. Each of our arms has been sprayed, squirted, or embrocated with one of six insect repellents. Scram! Bitebegone. Forest Haven. Itchnix. Swatter. Deetour. We three are not told which two products we’re testing, one on each arm. We are low on the chain of command in this vast organization.
Indeed, we are volunteers, though generously remunerated, and are treated as if we might pre-publicationally broadcast to the world at large the relative efficacy of these six products. So whether pump spray, aerosol, or lotion, each has been obscured like wine at a blind tasting. It matters little to me that I can identify each by its odor, even the unscented Swatter. I don’t care which is most effective. I may know the stuff like the back of my hand, but I never use it.
I deal not in clichés but in suggestiveness. It’s on “the back of my hand” that a mosquito first lands. I see immediately, through the clear plastic wall of the vasculum, from the mosquito’s spotted wings, that it’s an Anopheles. And I see also, of course, from the balance in size between the palpus and the proboscis, that it’s female. It settles on my hand at about a 65-degree angle, halfway between the limits of its biting stance. Not that mosquitoes actually bite. But it feels like a bite, and it’s a feeling I Iong for.
It’s over a hundred years ago now that the great Italian trio of Bignami, Bastianelli, and Grassi (whose names echo down the decades queerly like those of such renowned castrati as Bernacchi, Farinelli, and Moreschi) first infected human subjects with malaria and in so doing proved that malaria is transmitted only by the same anopheline mosquito (genus, of course, not individual bug) as now…bites me! Stabs me, really. Stabs me and sips my blood.
The mosquito has a mouth, but the mouth can’t open because a mosquito can’t distend its jaw. Instead, the ravening creature cocks its head and shoots out from the center of its proboscis six preternaturally sharp stylets. So gracile and fragile are these stylets, they’re protected by the mosquito’s lower labium until such a moment as this. As the stylets penetrate my flesh, the labium folds back upon itself. The mosquito then insinuates the stylets to their maximum depth. It releases its sweet, unguinous saliva through the shafts reamed by the stylets. My blood, kept from clotting by this same saliva in the kind of harmony of reproduction that points toward God, is free for the sipping and the sucking.
When the mosquito has had enough of me–and a tiny bubble of my blood bursts out upon my skin–it slowly draws its stylets from my hand. The labium glides back over them. Then, for an instant, before it flies away, taking with it five times its own weight in my blood, the mosquito looks up at me. Her eyes take up nearly her entire face. Each eye consists of thousands of six-sided lenses. And each lens is sited differently. She can’t see me, because her eyes are too complex to focus. But she knows I’m here. I’m the blur of creation that’s supplied the very plasma for the issue of those eggs she carries in her elegant body. I’m the human father of her next generation.
“Ouch!” I say.
Amy looks over at me. “I guess your product isn’t working, Anthony.”
“To the contrary, Amy,” I respond.
“Does it itch yet?” she asks.
“I’m not allergic,” I say. She turns her dull eyes from me. She appears to have no idea that what we call a mosquito bite is simply an allergic reaction to the mosquito’s wondrous saliva.
Soon my hands and both my arms are covered with mosquitoes. Not all of them bite me. Not all of them take my blood. Some just sit there, enjoying me as much as I’m enjoying them.
Is this a great job, or what!
Don’t even get me started on ticks.
To judge the effectiveness against ticks, the testers put three active deer-tick nymphs on their untreated wrists and waited to see whether the ticks would climb onto a repellent-treated section of their forearm. The test was repeated every hour with new ticks until at least one tick ventured onto the treated area and stayed there.
J. D. LANDIS has published six novels for young readers, one of which, THE SISTERS IMPOSSIBLE (Knopf), was a Children’s Choice Award, and five novels for mature readers. LYING IN BED (Algonquin) won The Morton Dauwen Zabel Award, bestowed every three years by The American Academy of Arts and Letters.