Late-spring sleet fell on the flat, open tundra around Kangerlussuaq, Greenland where Lauren Culler first counted mosquitos. It was June, and she was crouched on the ground beside a pond, collecting thousands of insect samples.
“It was taking me hours and hours,” the Dartmouth College environment researcher recalls from her New Hampshire office. “I remember questioning what I was doing with my life.” That trip would lead her to a decade of study on Arctic mosquitos.
“Arctic mosquito” is a common term broadly used for any species of mosquito adapted to extreme conditions in the North—species whose lifecycles can withstand the short growing season, and whose eggs can survive long winters. In Greenland, that mosquito is the Aedes nigripes—a species that also thrives in Canada and Alaska.
Given how mosquito distribution maps for the North from the 1950s are still in use, then scientifically, very little attention has been paid to the zealous Northern nuisance. But humans and animals in Arctic regions have long been battling the bugs.
“Tormentors” and “harassers,” are a few mosquito monikers that Culler has heard by way of the (generally visceral) response she gets to her work.
Late 19th-century scientist George Frederick Wright writes in his 1896 book Greenland Ice Fields and Life in the North Atlantic, “We had heard much about the Greenland mosquito, but here we met the creatures themselves and both saw and felt them in all their glory.” Culler often quotes Wright, who tells tales of diving into lakes and rivers to escape from the bites.
But why are mosquitos so prevalent in the North? “Humans have been asking this question for a long time,” says Culler. “It seems like the further North you go the worse they get.” By worse, she means higher volumes. As for size, she says, “I think they are perceived as huge because there are so many of them.”
In Greenland, as well as Nunavut, Arctic mosquitos don’t face the same predators they do in lower latitudes, or even in the subarctic, where there are dragonflies, damselflies, and more fish and birds to suppress the populations.
Take the ocean breeze out of the mix and you’re looking at even more bugs, as residents of Nunavut’s only inland community are well aware. “There’s an abundance of mosquitos,” says Hugh Nateela, a staffer of the Hunters and Trappers Organization in Baker Lake. “They’ve always been around. It’s something we’ve learned to live with up here.”
Besides being known as the closest community to Canada’s geographical centre, Baker Lake also has a reputation as the mosquito capital of the territory. Anyone from the community who spends time hunting, camping, or berry picking can confirm that. And with earlier springs and warmer summers coming to the North, mosquito season is getting longer, says Nateela. “It used to be four to six weeks. That’s changing now with climate change…they come out earlier now and they stick around longer.”
For wildlife like caribou, who can’t hide indoors when the weather is unusually hot and wet, heavy mosquito seasons can lessen reproductive success, and in extreme cases, lead to lower survival rates. “In the North I’ve seen animals emaciated…they’re being constantly bitten,” says entomologist Taz Stuart who is working in the Northwest Territories—specifically Yellowknife and Fort Smith—to screen mosquitos for disease.
While studies on Northern mosquito populations are sparse, the research that is being done is largely connected to public health. Because there aren’t any known dangerous virus-carrying mosquitos in NWT, Stuart calls the northern species “nuisance mosquitos” while transmitting species (there are eight in North America) grow in hot climates.
As a bug control specialist of 25 years, Stuart can usually predict when mosquitos will arrive. The pests come out exactly two weeks after any rainfall and the best way to avoid an outbreak is to catch them before they take flight. “You want to be controlling mosquitos when they’re in the water before they are free-flying female adults trying to bite you,” says Stuart. He does that by pouring microbes into lakes and ponds to target larvae so they “die in the water.”
Busting one myth, Stuart says a female mosquito doesn’t die after it feeds, but can bite two or three times, and will produce 100 and 250 eggs following every blood meal. Male mosquitos live on plant nectar. Of the 100 some mosquito species living in Canada, Stuart said he’s found around 34 different species in NWT alone.
If you’re heading outdoors in mosquito season, Stuart has one tip: don’t skip the DEET (it works for up to six hours). But citizen scientists on the other side of the North—in Labrador City, Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Pinware, and Battle Harbour—might hold off on their bug spray this summer while they work to attract mosquitos.
In Labrador and Newfoundland, baseline data is patchy at best for mosquito populations, so Tegan Padgett and her team at Memorial University are sending out mosquito catching kits for campers and hikers to hunt mosquitos, one bug at a time. Last summer, using a small aspirator on a detachable tube trap, one volunteer scientist caught 100 mosquitos for screening through the Newfoundland and Labrador Mosquito Project.
For just about everyone else who is looking to enjoy the outdoors relatively mosquito-free, there are better places in the North when it comes to bugs.
“As you get up to a higher elevation there are not as many,” says Chris Widrig of Widrig Outfitters Ltd., who runs sport hunts in the Yukon mountains in the Peel watershed. “We’re a dry climate in the Yukon, we get very little precipitation compared to other parts of Canada. That’s not mosquito habitat.” Granted, you might hear a totally different story from anyone travelling along the Yukon River in June or July, he says. “The Yukon is a big place.”
This ability to survive in a habitat considered one of the harshest by human standards keeps Culler enthralled by these insects that most people vehemently detest.
Culler says it’s possible to imagine a scenario in which Northern mosquito populations would struggle in a warming Arctic. But then southern species might also migrate further North. Right now, there are too many variables in Arctic mosquito ecology to understand what the North would be like without them.
“It clearly would be ideal for people,” says Culler, who gets calls all the time from tourists who want to plan their trip North around mosquito season. “I don’t expect climate change is going to completely wipe them out or completely give them a boost. They are able to persist year after year despite these extreme conditions.”