Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Dan Crane: The Year of the Mosquito

Biting insects are the price of admission for playing in the backcountry of the Adirondacks. But this year these pests seem to be more plentiful and ferocious than in years past. This is particularly true for the blood-sucking scourge known worldwide as the pesky mosquito.

Last month I experienced the large number and ferocity of mosquitoes first hand during an eight-day trek within the remote interior of the Five Ponds Wilderness in the northwestern Adirondacks. Saying mosquitoes were plentiful would be a vast understatement given the near-Biblical proportions of the blood-suckers encountered there.

In addition to the vast numbers, the mosquitoes also displayed a greater bloodthirstiness than I have witnessed in many years. Even places usually light in mosquito activity had more than their fair share of the vicious blood-suckers this year. And they were literally out for blood.

There are at least two possible explanations for this near-historical level of mosquitoes. One explanation involves the record level of precipitation during the spring and early summer, while another revolves around the precipitous decline of one of their chief predators.

Few residents of the Adirondacks will soon forget the record amount of rainfall this spring and early summer, with its concomitant flooding causing numerous road closures, some of which continue to this day. All this extra water accumulated in the backcountry resulting in overflowing water bodies, bloated streams and soggy wetlands.

The plentiful water provided a boom for mosquitoes and other blood-sucking pests, providing numerous opportunities to lay their eggs and ample habitat for their larval young.

The reduction in the bat population may be another possible explanation for the proliferation of mosquitoes in the Adirondacks this year.

Bats are flying mammals with webbed forelimbs that have evolved into wings used in flight. Bats are unique among mammals as they are the only members of this class capable of sustained flight.

There are nine different species of bats present within the Adirondacks and all of these consume insects, including mosquitoes, as their main source of food.

Although bats are not exclusive predators of mosquitoes there is evidence they consume prodigious levels of mosquitoes as well as other flying insects. Typically an individual bat can devour up to one third of its own weight in insects each night. That could potentially add up to a whole lot of mosquitoes.

Unfortunately, bat populations along the eastern United States have been devastated by the white-nose syndrome. This syndrome has been associated with the death of over a million bats in the northeastern United States.

The white-nose syndrome is named after the white fungus found on affected bat’s nose, ears and wings. Mortality rates of 90 to 100% have been observed in some caves leaving the long-term viability of some species survival in doubt. The Adirondack bat populations have not been immune to this devastating condition.

Over the last couple of years I have witnessed the reduction in the bat populations first hand. Areas in the northwestern Adirondacks where I observed bats in the early hours of the evening now appear to be devoid of these flying mammals.

Recently, while exploring remote areas south of the Robinson River in the Five Ponds Wilderness I made a concentrated effort to observe some bats early in the evening. Unfortunately the numbers and ferocity of the mosquito horde limited my time viewing the early evening skies without putting both my physical and mental health at risk.

However during the early evening hours of six of the days where weather permitted I failed to see a single bat flying through the darkening skies. The mosquitoes took full advantage of the lack of these flying mammals by feasting on me until I was near the point of insanity.

An abundant mosquito population coupled with an increased bloodthirstiness may be the result of the prodigious amount of rainfall or the depletion of a natural predator — it is difficult to say. When you are in the backcountry surrounded by a swarm of these blood-suckers, reasons are not as important as the sweet relief that insect netting or a good bottle of bug repellent can provide.

Do not fret though; these blood-suckers will get their comeuppance with winter just a few short months away.

Photos: Mosquito by Joaquim Alves Gaspar, high water at Sand Lake by Dan Crane, and bat with white-nose syndrome by US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.


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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.

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