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Warmth, water mean Minnesotans face mosquito challenge

It was a telltale sign, apparent as soon as I pulled our car into the gravel parking area. Not another vehicle was to be seen, despite the sunshine and the warm-but-pleasant evening temperature. This parking area is a jumping-off point for such diverse activities as hiking, walking a dog, horseback riding, and yes, trout fishing in the picturesque stream along which the trail system winds.

But on this particular day, just before the official start of summer, it was deserted, save for my son and I. Stepping out of the car, we were greeted by the hum of the unofficial Minnesota state bird, the mosquito, and the first order of business was established: find the can of bug spray, and apply the contents to all exposed flesh.

There is a blissful time in spring, in the days leading up to summer, when the weather is warm enough, but less than blistering hot; cool on most nights, and – best of all – relatively free of mosquitoes. Not absent completely, but manageable enough that on most days you can even forego bug spray without feeling like a human pincushion.

That time has ended, due in part to warming temperatures and to the rains that have accompanied the transition from spring to summer. This seems to be one of the most probable explanations for seeing fewer people in the wilder places out of doors, places where mosquitoes and other mini predators are found in greatest abundance.

On lakes, in mowed and manicured parks (often sprayed for mosquitoes), on golf courses, on our decks, and at the backyard grill, we remain an outdoors species all summer long. But in the places where nature has the real upper hand, there is a noticeable drop in human presence. Some diehards refuse to be deterred from favorite places and activities by a creature little more than 2 milligrams in weight. But it’s clear that for many, the little pests have an impact on enjoying the joys of Minnesota summers.

Considering how numerous and persistent their attacks can be, you might think that each and every mosquito was “out for blood.” But the truth is, the mosquito population gets its nutrition from the nectars of plants. Their only use for human or animal blood is to provide necessary ingredients for their eggs. That being the case, only female mosquitoes need our blood.

Beyond the annoyance and the short-term discomfort, there are few serious side effects from mosquito bites in our part of the world. Malaria has never been an issue here. But West Nile virus, though not deadly like malaria, can be transmitted by mosquitoes to humans. It’s usually the result of a mosquito taking a blood meal from an infected bird. Crows seem to be the common source for the bird-to-mosquito-to-human transmission. Being larger than most common birds, crows are probably a top avian target.

There were 70 confirmed cases of West Nile virus in Minnesota in 2012, in 34 counties, pretty much border-to-border north to south and east to west, but most concentrated in Southwest counties. There was one death attributed to the virus. Wisconsin recorded 57 cases in 2012, and one has been reported this year. Abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, muscle aches, rash, and sore throat are common symptoms, which can last for up to a week.

There is no true cure for the virus, and treatment is usually only for symptoms, with common aspirin or ibuprofen. Healthy people generally recover without complications. Severe cases, which are more likely to strike those with weakened immune systems, have been known to cause brain damage, and rarely, death.

There are very effective repellents, but I’ve never been enthusiastic about slathering myself in serious chemical compounds, like DEET, the active ingredient in the better mosquito repellents. On the other hand, if it’s a choice between being extremely uncomfortable pursuing my favorite summertime activities, or exposing myself for brief periods to the chemicals in repellents, I’ve made my pact with the devil, and use the repellents. I do make sure, though, to shower, or to wash those areas where I’ve applied repellent, soon after I’m safe behind screened doors and windows!

When the mosquitoes are joined in full force by the biting flies, I sometimes resort to wearing a fine mesh “bug shirt,” made of a very tightly woven fabric that resembles window screen. Its mesh is actually finer, and can keep out tiny insect critters that your screens at home can’t. The shirt has a drawstring hood that can be pulled tight at the neck, making it virtually impossible for an insect attacker to break through your defenses. Vision is slightly darkened, but because your eyes are usually focused on objects far from the fabric, it can be seen through quite easily.

I do dislike the fact that the ultra-fine mesh slows the transpiration of body heat, making it a bit sauna-like on a really hot day. But when desperate insect defense measures are called for, the bug shirt does the job.

It takes serious qualifications to be a Minnesotan. “Minnesota nice” may be what we’re most proud of. But being able to survive sub-Artic winters, and coexist with a plague of summer insects, rank right up there as Minnesotan claims to fame.