The insect engineers

Although it’s not official, anyone in Maine who fishes or works in a garden in mid-spring knows that the lowly black fly is the state insect, not the designated honeybee. When conditions are right, black flies will eat you up and carry your remains back to their nests for midnight snacks.

For hopeless trout-fishing addicts, black flies are a bittersweet experience: you loathe their presence in your eyes and nostrils but recognize the symbiotic relationship between black fly swarms and rising trout.

What if there were no black flies? What if you could wave a magic wand — or hire an insect engineer — and get rid of the scornful pests for good? Would you do it?

Here in the Florida Keys, starting the first of the year, 750 million genetically engineered mosquitoes will be released in the Florida peninsula by a British company, Oxitec. Oxitec is partly funded by Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, who hopes to rid the world of malaria. The goal, of course, in Florida is to reduce the mosquito populations and minimize the need for the use of nasty insecticides.

As to whether or not this is a good idea, there is strong mixed opinion among residents of the Keys.

The 750 million genetically altered mosquitoes are all males. When they breed with conventional mosquitoes, only male insects will reproduce, killing off the female firstborns. The surviving second generation males carry the genetic modification.

Only female mosquitoes bite people, so supposedly no one will be bitten by the introduced mutant males. In Brazil, where this experiment was tried, there reportedly was a 95 percent reduction in mosquito numbers! In the Keys, there have been 49 cases of dengue fever reported, which is a concern since the fever is caused by mosquito bites.

Soon workers from Oxitec will be distributing boxes of the hybrid male eggs at strategic locations up and down the peninsula. Once water is introduced to the boxed eggs, voila! The Frankenstein creatures will be out among the tropical breezes and swaying palm fronds, looking for love.

So, what do you think? My late mother, who had good, grounded instincts, would have found this scientific breakthrough utterly abhorrent. “Don’t monkey around with Nature,” she would have said, pointedly.

What worries me is this: what else can they do with mosquitoes, weaponize them?

As for the infamous Maine black fly, the next thing you know sales teams from Oxitec will be proposing black-fly control in Maine.

No thanks.

The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. His email address is [email protected]


V. Paul Reynolds

Columnist at Ellsworth American
The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. His email address is [email protected]

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