America’s most wanted… bug

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By NICK THOMAS

Of all the animal species on the planet, which one kills the most people each year?

You might be thinking snakes. After all, cobras alone take out some 20,000 people annually in India. So, candidates with poison-laden fangs should logically be bumped to the top of the list, right? Nope.

How about wild carnivores sporting a prominent set of sharp teeth? Wrong again. You’re more likely to be savaged by a crazed Lady Gaga than by any shark, lion, or bear.

In fact, the answer may very well be sitting just a few feet away from you, right now, ready to strike.

More than a relentlessly annoying pest searching for its next meal, blood-sucking mosquitoes can kill their human victims by transmitting deadly diseases and parasites. These include malaria, yellow fever, and Dengue Fever which, collectively, kill millions of people around the world each year. Malaria alone will have bumped off ten poor souls by the time you finish reading this article.

While the mortality numbers are staggering enough, diseases spread by mosquitoes have also influenced human history. These winged micro-vampires reportedly may have contributed to the deaths of prominent figures including Jefferson Davis, Alexander the Great, and Oliver Cromwell.

It’s also been claimed that they helped thwart some of history’s great ancient armies by preventing the advancement of Roman legions, defeating the Spanish Armada, and spoiling an attempt to conquer the world by that lovable rogue, Genghis Khan.

Turns out that not all of the world’s 3,000 species of mosquitoes actually feast on humans. And rather than biting their victims, they actually stab their prey with a tiny, needle-like proboscis, sucking up as much as one and half times their body weight in blood.

During the “bite,” some of the insect’s saliva drains back into our blood.  Most people are slightly allergic to the saliva from these little droolers, which results in the familiar puffy, itchy welt that appears on the skin.  Only the females “bite,” and the blood provides protein for eggs.  Once topped up, they won’t eat again for several days. Bet you wish you could say the same thing about your fridge-raiding, teenage kids.

So what can you do to protect yourself from these flying hemoglobin addicts?  Well, you could build a canal around your home and fill it with Gambusia affinis, a small fish that can put away some 500 mosquito larvae a day.  However, if unreasonable city ordinances prohibit moat construction in your neighborhood, consider the following suggestions:

• Bathe regularly (hopefully, you do this anyway).  Lactic acid, produced by muscles during exercise, finds its way through the skin and attracts the menacing monsters in droves. So when partying under the stars, go easy on the dancing. Your cool moves may attract more than a dance partner.

• Be careful what you drink, because alcohol dilates blood vessels increasing blood flow near the skin. So, the more pickled you become, the more attractive you are as a meal.

• Finally, you might want to hold off that breathing because mosquitos have a liking for carbon dioxide, a component of our exhaled air.

So there you have it—simple steps to enjoy your next venture into the great outdoors. And I know they work, too. Because at the last BBQ party I attended, I spent the entire evening holding my breath, lying on the ground, motionless and sober.

Okay, so I wasn’t exactly the life of the party. But at least there were no skeeters on me when the hosts threw me out.

(Thomas’ features and columns have appeared in more than 300 magazines and newspapers. He can be reached at his blog: http://getnickt.blogspot.com.)

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