In the city where I grew, we knew the chief entomologist by his first name.
Far from the tropics, the city was visited by few spectacular, glistening, colourful examples of Insecta. Instead, we were plagued primarily by two pest antagonists, both humble in appearance.
The cankerworms riddled the leaves of our prized, nearly-century-old American Elm trees and dropped on silk lines, to cars and pedestrians below. They left windshields sticky and pedestrians plucking soft wriggling bodies from shoulders and baseball caps. But the cankerworm only plagued the city for a few weeks, some years.
Summers always belonged to the mighty prairie mosquito.
Their swarms were spoken of with horror and begrudging admiration by both visitors and residents alike.
Despite the spillways, asphalt and tower buildings, the city was still built on floodplain. It remained at the ultimate mercy of the two rivers which birthed it, flooded it and fed it. The thick rich clay soil under foot sealed itself from draining every spring. Water pooled in frost-broken alleyways. Mosquitos lay and hatched in still water, then rose.
Because of the fierce, road-cracking winter cold (colder than the north pole, we bragged) there was no particular fear of mosquito transmitted disease.
But the mosquitos still were blood-suckers. While some people would brave evening barbeques with the dubious protection of citronella candles, in my neighbourhood each front hall closet held at least one green can of DEET-impregnated Off! Spray.
We learned to flick the biters, not smash, or risk smearing insect parts and blood across our cheeks. Bites on the back of the knee itched most. Calamine lotion was for babies.
It is only the female mosquito that hunts and seeks out mammalian breath and blood.
My city had a system of mosquito traps and threshold triggers. Triggers tripped brought the night-time spraying of the insecticide Malathion. From the backs of trucks, driven slowly down each street, city workers “fogged” the air with its chemical vapour, to try and keep the mosquitos in check.
The potential dangers from Malathion to human health, and to other insects, and amphibians, were acknowledged and over-ruled. Fogging nights were announced ahead of time, to alert us to stay inside, close our windows and keep air conditioning units off until after the fogging trucks had gone by.
One summer, a test trial in natural controls was put in place – the release of dragonflies – dancing mosquito predators, purpose-raised for our rescue.
I did not know, but wanted to believe: the chief etymologist himself released these dragonflies, flying low over the roof tops of the city, tossing blue-green red dragons from a helicopter’s opened door. I imagined fist-sized folk heroes in the making, descending, glittering through sunshine, armoured maws open and eager, to liberate the city.
We smiled and cheered when our dragons flew by and hovered near, delighted when they startled us, brushing us with a furious, banking wing, dodging and chasing. (Then we brushed our hands over our hair to dislodge the mosquitos hiding there.)
Years later, in a desert city far from home, hearing traffic pass and palm trees rustle, I remember the whine of the fogging machines, returning. I remember the faint malathion smell, the hurrying to shut a bedroom window, a still, humid night.
The dragonflies, deemed insufficient to their monumental task, in the morning, no longer.
A week later newly hatched mosquitos reclaimed their place. Queens of my drab, humble insect city.
Kilmeny MacMichael writes and lives in a small town in western Canada’s Okanagan Valley. Her short stories have appeared in print with Cirque, antilang, and Arachne Press. She has also been published in several online publications such as The Ilanot Review. For more information please visit: kfmacmichael.wordpress.com