Least Favorite Things

It’s been a cool summer here in eastern France, and the last week in particular has been autumnal. This might explain why I’m finding very large spiders in the house – they usually seek refuge  once September is fully underway. Given the temperatures, I can understand why they’re confused. It doesn’t mean I’m happy to see them. I may not be a true arachnophobe, but spiders the size of my palm are not the kind of feral visitors I welcome.

That said, I do my best to capture the beasties and release them outside, preferably far enough from the house that they won’t just stroll right back inside.

Mosquitoes are another case altogether.

A mosquito wing. I don't care how pretty it might be, or how graceful the lazy bobbing flight of the insect might be, I still don't like them.  Photo: Laurie Knight

A mosquito wing.
I don’t care how pretty it might be, or how graceful the lazy bobbing flight of the insect might be, I still don’t like them.
Photo: Laurie Knight

My family has always been amused by my single-minded focus on killing any mosquito that gets in the house. For me, this little insect is one of the few earthly creatures I would happily never see again. Even though I’m one of the fortunate types who seems to repel them, as far as I’m concerned, mosquitoes are just finely honed carriers for all manner of disease.

Our trip to Vietnam marked the first time I took every precaution against mosquitoes. A supposed plant remedy taken two days before departure, long trousers and shirt sleeves at all times, insect repellent – in short, all available tools. And look, none of us got a single bite, except on the last night in Saigon, when we let down our guard.

Mosquitoes have been more dangerous to humans than any other animal besides humans themselves. The increase in international travel, as well as changing temperatures and climate, mean that mosquito-borne disease is becoming more common in areas previously spared.

Technically, the mosquitoes aren’t the problem; they just carry diseases like malaria, dengue fever or encephalitis (although not, as some people fear, HIV). Still, many of the 3500 species of mosquito are able to carry some kind of disease. A look at the chart below will show that my dreaded large house spiders don’t even make the list of truly dangerous critters.

Source: GatesNotes

Source: GatesNotes

I missed World Mosquito Day, which was on August 20. What does one do to celebrate the day dedicated to mosquitoes? Usually animal-related awareness days are intended to save that particular animal – this day is different. This day is to raise awareness on how to avoid, eradicate and diminish mosquitoes and the powerful diseases they spread.

Which is what I’ve been supporting in my own small way for my entire life.

Small Fold, Big Surprise

Last week I posted a story about Big Origami.

This week, it’s Small Origami.

Namely, an origami microscope.

Source: Foldscope Team

Source: Foldscope Team


The Foldscope website says it as concisely as I possibly could, perhaps due to their experience with efficient use of space:

“Foldscope is an origami-based print-and-fold optical microscope that can be assembled from a flat sheet of paper.

“Although it costs less than a dollar in parts, it can provide over 2,000X magnification with sub-micron resolution (800nm), weighs less than two nickels (8.8 g), is small enough to fit in a pocket (70 × 20 × 2 mm3), requires no external power, and can survive being dropped from a 3-story building or stepped on by a person.

“Its minimalistic, scalable design is inherently application-specific instead of general-purpose gearing towards applications in global health, field based citizen science and K12-science education.”

Source: Foldscope Team

Source: Foldscope Team

An invention of the Stanford University Department of Bioengineering, the body of the microscope can be printed out on card stock; add a lens, an LED light and a button battery. The Foldscope group would like to give away 10,000 microscope sets for testing. You can request your own DIY kit here, and watch the TED talk on the microscope here.

Image: Foldscope Team

Image: Foldscope Team

All that’s needed for the microscope slide is clear adhesive tape, and the device can be configured for different magnifications depending on the type of lens used.

The idea is that an inexpensive tool like this can be widely distributed to areas where a standard microscope would be inaccessible due to price or distribution. A variety  of diseases, from malaria to African sleeping sickness, could be screened using the tool. But the microscope can also be used in classrooms or for field research. And if it gets torn or broken, it is easily replaced.

Foldscope images Source: Foldscope Team

Foldscope images
Source: Foldscope Team

I never expected to be using the words ‘origami’ and ‘microscope’ to describe the same object, but there it is. Today’s pleasant surprise.


No love for the mosquito

Photo: Matt Burard-Lucas

Photo: Matt Burard-Lucas

The first mosquito of the year drifted into an open window yesterday. There’s still snow on the ground, but at least one mosquito was ready for spring. Or would have been, if I hadn’t done what I always do with mosquitoes. Flies, wasps, even the massive guêpes, the local hornets as big as my thumb – all get a pass from me. If they wander into the house, I shoo them out the window. Ditto for spiders, which get trapped and removed in my humane spider trap. Not so for mosquitoes.

No one has any love for the mosquito. At worst, they are reliable bearers of disease, at the best they are a nuisance; they make summer nights noisy with their high-pitched whines and summer days uncomfortable with their bites and itches. Much of environmental and conservation study goes into the life forms we consider valuable, unique and indispensable. But what of the unloved mosquito, the ubiquitous creature we would like to see eradicated?

The magazine Nature  published an 2010 article in which several mosquito experts said that, while mosquitoes provide massive amounts of feeding potential in a number of environments, there’s nothing they provide that couldn’t be provided by other insects, and with much less nuisance. Mosquitoes carry malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis, Rift Valley fever, Chikungunya virus and West Nile virus, to name a few.

There are 3,500 species of mosquito, of which only approximately 200 attack humans. Present on almost every continent and in every ecosystem, they have been evolving with their surroundings for an estimated 100 million years. In some areas, they form swarms thick enough to asphyxiate animals. Mosquitoes have adapted to the abbreviated summers of the far north by breeding in vast numbers.

A recent article in the New York Times looks at the ethics of the many disease-related research projects which focus on the mosquito. From genetically modified forms of diseases being inserted into the mosquito food supply to breeding wingless forms of female mosquito, many methods are being investigated that would stop the spread of disease. But if even the simplest method – the lowly mosquito net – has prompted species adaptation (some species now feed earlier, before humans have gone to bed under a net), what adaptations will other interventions prompt?

A group of bright teenagers had the idea that if diseases could be delivered via mosquito, why not vaccines as well? Finalists in the 2012 Google Science Fair, they are now working together with a pharmaceutical company to bioengineer mosquitoes that would carry a West Nile virus vaccine.

As the NYT article says, “What is its ecological niche anyway? One entomologist (has said) that we don’t even have a great understanding of mosquitoes’ place in our ecosystem, because we have focused our efforts on killing them rather than observing them.

We spend so much time working against extinction of so many creatures and plants. I personally feel that the main thing mosquitoes do well is act as efficient delivery vehicles for some very smart and adaptable viruses, and I would never argue against the eradication of those viruses. Still, when it comes to wiping out the hated mosquito itself, a part of me agrees with the words written by the great ecologist Aldo Leopold:

“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

Having said that, I still won’t be using my humane bug trap when a mosquito wanders into my house.