Regional Culture: Where are the Mosquitoes?

by Ray Linville

It’s so quiet outside. Yesterday as I walked along the sidewalk in front of the house, I not only inhaled the fresh, crisp air of winter, but I felt so lonesome.

For weeks when I walked out the front door, I was besieged by waves of swarming mosquitoes. Jumping quickly inside a car was no respite. They had even taken up occupancy and seemed to be more abundant there than outside – and they had me captured in a confined space with no place to escape.

When Hurricane Florence came with its record-breaking rain, it created the ideal breeding conditions for mosquitoes. Some areas in this region got more than 30 inches and then were overwhelmed by days and days of excessive flooding. A few weeks later, Hurricane Michael arrived with more rain that left even more standing water. 

Forrest Gump describes the torrents of water that we experienced this way: “Rain that flew in sideways. And sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from the underneath.”

But Forrest didn’t warn us that mosquitoes can multiply – and are huge – after such rain. Some eggs lie dormant for years until heavy rains and floods occur, and then the mosquito population spikes into the billions. Yes, billions with a “b.”

Billions of mosquitoes are only half of the problem. The other half is the size. Soon after the two hurricanes hit, we were plagued with “mega mosquitoes” known as gallinippers. This species can grow 20 times larger than common mosquitoes. 

The difference between our usual mosquito companions versus the much larger gallinipper.

They were such a problem that the governor made $4 million available to several N.C. counties, including mine, for controlling the intensifying mosquito population. Unlike other counties, however, mine decided not to spray because the oversized and overpopulated mosquitoes were only a “nuisance.” What? Even when undersized and few in number, mosquitoes deserve eradication. 

What a difference a generation makes. Spraying for mosquitoes was once not that unusual. When I was growing up, my hometown of Winston-Salem sent a “bug truck” at dusk around the city each week during warm weather. Chasing after the truck (and inhaling the thick, musky spray that spiraled from it) was a rite of passage and was the only activity that interrupted a nightly game of “kick the can.” The closer to the truck I got, the higher my standing among the other kids, and the kid who stayed the longest time behind the truck was the champion. Little did we know.

Later as an adult, when I lived next to an Air Force base, a cargo plane flew hundreds of feet over homes as a mosquito spray spewed out its tail. (Because the spray eliminated mosquitoes, birds that dined on them no longer flew near the base’s flight patterns and weren’t a danger for being ingested by jet engines as planes took off and landed.) I had then become more cautious and dutifully kept my kids inside the house for the evening, but the next few days we enjoyed a mosquito-free neighborhood.

Sprayings never continued after autumn because mosquitoes don’t like the cool days of winter. They become lethargic at 60 degrees. Some females die when the weather is cold but most just hibernate before the first frost. 

And their eggs? Cold temperatures don’t kill them. Remember that mosquitoes have been survivors since the ice ages and before. The eggs are waiting for the warm, wet days of spring to hatch into larvae and begin the life cycle again. 

January is such a beautiful month for many reasons. For me, one is that mosquitoes are few and far between. Let’s enjoy the cold days for a few more weeks “if the Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise.”

Ray Linville writes about local connections to Southern food, history and culture. He can be reached at linville910@gmail.com.