This article was submitted by Robert Scanlon, a PhD researcher in the School of Environmental and Life Sciences.
After a lovely summer day (in April?!), you’re laying in bed at night, the air temperature is slowly dropping, it’s a calming experience. You can hear in the background a couple of crickets, maybe a frog and the distant hum a train passing by. You’re at peace with the world and ready for a good nights sleep.
And then… oh no, it’s a mosquito! That’s the night’s sleep ruined. That high pitched hum of a mosquito – everyone knows it, and I’m yet to meet anyone that likes the sound.
It’s only the female mosquitoes that suck blood. They need additional resources to produce eggs, primarily protein. Mosquitoes are attracted to particular odours, heat and moisture, and they can detect the carbon dioxide in your breath. For some species of mosquito, humans are the perfect food source, as we don’t have much hair on our bodies and our blood has the perfect level of nutrition.
But what about the males, what do they eat? Are there even male mosquitoes? Nobody ever seems to mention them. And if the females only suck blood when they are pregnant, what do they do for the rest of their lives? Do mosquitoes even have a purpose beyond being the largest killer of humans (due to their role in the transition of diseases like malaria)?
Well surprise, surprise: mosquitoes do live a life outside of the time they spend annoying us.
So what does a male mosquito eat? They’re actually vegetarian, and eat the sugary fluids of plants like nectar, fruit juice and sap. Chances are you never really see them, because they have no need to go into houses where dangerous humans live.
By visiting the flowers of plants for nectar, mosquitoes do a very important job: they pollinate plants! When a mosquito visits a flower, it collects a few bits of pollen as well, which it takes on to the next flower. If that next flower is the same species and the pollen touches that flower’s stigma (one of the flower’s female bits), then it will help fertilise the plant and produce seeds. Without seed production, the forest will eventually run out of plants, so it’s a pretty important process.
You may have heard about the mass die-off of bees and other insects around the world. This is a major problem, because lots of different ecosystems will crash without pollinators. The pollinators are in trouble, so we need as many of them as we can get!
So really, at least half of the mosquito population isn’t out to get us. They’re actually performing a pretty important role. By travelling from flower to flower, individual plant to individual plant, mosquitoes help maintain and increase genetic diversity across populations of individuals. This is really important, because it gives species the variability needed to adapt to the future. Who knows what changes in climate, disease and predators the future will bring?
They aren’t just pollinators, though. They are also food for a range of other animals: frogs, bats, geckos, lizards, birds and small mammals.
And don’t forget that the larvae of mosquitoes live in water bodies and feed on loose organic material (detritus) in the water, which helps keep it clean. The larvae are also an important food for small native animals like dragonfly nymphs, tadpoles and fish (though probably not the ‘mosquito fish’; that’s another species introduction that didn’t work the way it was supposed to).
Hats off to NUPSA for recognising the International Day for Biological Diversity on May 22. Insects are the most diverse group of animals on the planet, and the mosquito family (Culicidae) alone has over 3,500 species. This diversity of species supports the diversity of associated but completely different species, like flowering plants. As with many areas in ecology, some mosquito species are generalists that visit many species of flower, while some are specialists and focus only on one or a few select plant species.
The benefits created by having increased biodiversity are hard to visualise, but are known to include an improvement in net productivity, increased ecosystem services and increased amazement. The best bit of studying ecology is that you come across all of these weird and wonderful creatures, all with unique characteristics.
If you ever get the chance to help restore some native vegetation, walk through some bush or check out the different plants and animals in your lawn, then take it! You’ll be amazed at the many different things you find.