All the buzz

by Paul Holmes ([email protected]) 755 views 

Spring is heading straight into summer in our little corner of the earth. Even without a calendar telling us that spring arrived officially on March 20 and will last until June 21, there are some pretty reliable sights and sounds.

Lawns turn from brown to green, farmers begin their field preparations followed closely by spring planting and the flowers, trees and shrubs start coloring the landscape. All that’s a lot of fun to watch happen year after year after what seem to be increasingly harsh winters the last several years.

But perhaps spring is not just the season of color change, but also the season of sound. When sunset begins so early on winter days, there doesn’t seem to be a lot going on in the audio arena as the sun disappears into the west. Admittedly, there is a lot of racket when a winter storm causes ice on trees and power lines and transformers blow in the neighborhood as the electricity blinks a few times before going out completely. I’m sure that’s not something the power companies and their workers who must get out there in insanely cruel weather and restore electricity want to hear or see.

Barring an ice storm — and I wish we could bar them — it’s pretty quiet during a sunset in winter.

I’ve always believed that spring was our reward from nature for making it through the winter. Those springtime sounds bolster that idea. The birds are among the first to get into the act. Speaking scientifically, I suppose all those bird songs are designed for our avian friends to attract mates, but surely the birds are expressing their joy that they, too, made it through the cold and dark winter.

Adding to the springtime cacophony are some man-made sounds of spring — those generated by gasoline engines and electric motors that power the lawn mowers, trimmers and blowers we’ll hear until at least the end of October. The time I most enjoy hearing those sounds is when a piece of my aging lawn equipment actually starts on my first or second pull on the starter rope. That’s a minor miracle in and of itself.

Perhaps the one sound we all wish we didn’t hear beginning in spring and lasting through fall is that irritating buzz when a mosquito flies by our ears in preparation for a landing. It is pretty annoying to me when I’m dozing in my chair while pretending to watch television in the evening and hear the telltale buzz of an incoming mosquito. Even worse is the one that wakes me up in the middle of the night, having already slurped up what feels like a pint of blood.

The female mosquitoes, as we know, are the ones that bite us because they need a blood meal to nourish the eggs they’re going to lay outside in any convenient spot of water. I try not to let any mosquitoes that make it into the house get back outside. Sometimes they win the little game but I try to swat ‘em when I hear that buzz.

Flying insects make that buzzing noise because they have to work really hard to stay aloft. In some insects their wings beat up to 300 times per second. Wall Street Journal columnist Helen Czerski calls mosquitoes the kings and queens of insect-generated noise, noting that male and female mosquitoes flap their tiny wings 500-600 times per second. I confess I didn’t know — or care — how fast mosquitoes’ wingbeats are. But it’s pretty important to a mosquito, since the males and females of a species buzz with slightly different sounds. That’s the way they find mates and of course, perpetuate their species.

There are some 30 different species of mosquitoes who call the Natural State home, so how they buzz is pretty important to researchers trying to find methods for controlling them.

We have sought to control mosquitoes for a long time because their bites are a nuisance and in certain cases can spread disease. Ailments transmitted by organisms that act as vectors such as mosquitoes, flies, ticks are called vector diseases. Disease examples include encephalitis, dengue, yellow fever, and malaria — all ailments none of us want. So we have devised a number of methods to control mosquitoes, including insecticides, elimination of standing water, traps and the like.

One area of research is focusing on how to attract male mosquitoes in traps, sterilize them and return them to the wild, where they breed with females and produce sterile offspring. It’s not a brand new idea. Starting in the 1800s, researchers have experimented with adult mosquito attraction to acoustic signals. The first was a researcher named Hermann Landois in 1874, who showed that male mosquitoes could be attracted to different tones broadcasted using tuning forks.

Mosquitoes have antennal ears that vibrate in response to sound, according to a research paper written by two University of Arkansas Extension Service researchers. Female mosquitoes might locate other animals, including humans, by sound, researcher Emily McDermott said, but the evidence is not clear. Although research shows that mosquitoes do respond to sounds in the range of human speech, the primary attractant is the carbon dioxide that people expel when they talk. Mosquitoes are also attracted to people by heat and odor.

While research continues into the buzz of the wild mosquito, it seems for now, we need to focus on methods we can use to keep the biting little critters off us when we’re outside — don’t talk, stay cool and don’t sweat.

Unfortunately, that’s too much to ask of me.

Editor’s note: Paul Holmes is editor-at-large for Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are those of the author.