Love Stings

Wings sprinkled with fairy dust. Free-falling sex. A bite that can kill. Meet Minnesota's favorite insect -- and the men who adore it.

She leans against the wall, her rear end sticking up a bit, wiry hairs vibrating on her body. She's waiting for something warm to happen by. If she were to place a personals ad, it might go something like this:

 

YOUR HOT BREATH DRAWS ME NEAR.

So does the smell of sweat and, sometimes, feces. My turn-ons are chickens, lizards, and rodents. Heavy-breathing humans okay, too. But my clock is ticking--I've got a few months, tops. So I'll be looking for you, all summer long.

 

She's a predator, one any Minnesotan would know by sight. Which is why, most of the time, she ventures out only at dusk.

Even then, they are after her. Government-trained assassins control her birth rate and kill her young. Sophisticated weapons can knock her down as she flies, or kill her when she lands. Relentless, rubber-gloved lab technicians check her and her girlfriends for disease.

Her Latin family name is Culicidae. And yes, she's a she, since only the female mosquito bites. Minnesotans call her the state bird; so do a few other states, but what do they know?

"Minnesota is always vying for number one or two in the nation in terms of mosquitoes," says Dr. Robert Novak, a past president of the American Mosquito Control Association and a world-renowned mosquito expert based at the University of Illinois. Blame winter, he says--mosquitoes breed at frenzied rates in Minnesota because they don't have much time. Or look to history: When glaciers carved out the state's 10,000 lakes, they also created smaller dips, sloughs, and ponds that made perfect breeding grounds for the mosquito.

Kurt Pennuto knows those wetlands like the back of his hand. He can spot a new mosquito larva the size of a eyelash wiggling around in a swamp; after a rainstorm he will, without fail, predict where the new broods are hatching. Pennuto eats, drinks, and sleeps mosquitoes: "There have been times," he confesses, "when I've gone to bed at night, closed my eyes, and all I've seen is mosquito larvae."

Bugs, you might say, are in Pennuto's blood: His older brother is a professor of entomology in Maine, and Pennuto recalls a childhood full of insects: "We would go out and catch lightning bugs and June bugs. We'd dig up grubs in the ground and see what they'd turn into. We'd try to raise monarch butterflies from caterpillars. Little did I know that I'd be doing this for a living."

"This" is working for the Metropolitan Mosquito Control District (MMCD), the state's only full-time mosquito-fighting agency and one of about 30 such agencies in the nation. For more than four decades, "The District," as it's known to staffers, has tracked, slapped, zapped, and sprayed metro mosquitoes for more than 40 years--and along the way it's attracted more than its share of controversy, a fact Pennuto seems to take almost personally. After all, he says with an injured look, he and his 150 colleagues have only one goal--"allowing people to enjoy their back yards."

Pennuto's quest to educate the bitten masses has even transformed him into the very thing he battles. In his closet hangs a human-sized mosquito costume, complete with a pair of Styrofoam spheres sliced in half and covered with mesh to give the effect of compound eyes. In that getup, Pennuto, on his own time, has Rollerbladed down many a parade route, served as a mascot at Jesse Ventura's inaugural party, and been chased by a giant swatter at St. Paul Saints games.

This year, though, Pennuto may not have to work too hard to promote the district's work: Because of spring's record rainfalls, mosquitoes are now hatching "from eggs that were laid five, six, seven years ago." Already there are reports of "big, thick swarms of adults that can cover people's arms and faces in the middle of the day."

 

On a warm spring day, Pennuto is out in his blue MMCD truck, patrolling the gravel roads north of the Cities, near where Highway 169 and I-694 intersect. It's one of those rare moments in Minnesota when there's neither snow on the ground nor mosquitoes in the air: The sun is warm, but the breeze still bites. This is the time when mosquito eggs, which have spent the winter dormant on the edges of wetlands, begin to hatch.

But they're not hatching in just any wetland--and in a metropolitan area that is home to more than 65,000 swamps, sloughs, ponds, and marshes, picking the right ones to inspect is critical. Pennuto barely takes his foot off the gas pedal as he passes a body of water about the size of a tennis court, with cattails along the edge. He rattles off the data: "Type 4.4 wetland, permanent standing water 12 inches to 3 feet deep, marginal vegetative grasses, sedges, and cattails. I'm not going to even bother going there, because there won't be mosquitoes. The other end, where it's shallow, that's where you'll find them."

The truck radio emits a nice rendition of the Johnny Mercer classic "Jeepers Creepers" as Pennuto explains the mosquito fighter's favorite metaphor: the swamp as cereal bowl. "When the milk is first poured, the mosquitoes would lay eggs on the damp area closer to the rim, just where the milk laps the bowl. But as you eat your Cheerios and the levels go down, the mosquitoes follow the milk's edge and lay their eggs on the still-damp area." The eggs cannot hatch until they become wet again. Once they do, they can turn into larvae in as few as two hours, and the larvae will grow into adult mosquitoes in just ten days. So, announces Pennuto, "There's no time to waste."

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