Rarely do you hear praises for the mosquito, although it has defended some of the last outposts of wilderness from human incursions.

“Unsung heroes of the environment.” The “green Nobel Prize.” Eco-Ocean Awards, ecoart competitions and ecoschool certifications. If you’re even slightly interested in environmental news, you can’t help but hear and read a lot in the media about the recognition given to individuals, organizations and entities that do something—almost anything, it seems, by the number of ceremonies and award presentations—to help protect the natural world. Even movie stars have jumped onto the environmental bandwagon—and received attention in the press for it: Ed Norton and Leonardo DiCaprio come to mind. Ewan McGregor, of Star Wars fame, is another, who made a video for PBS’s Nature program in 2002 on his experience seeing the polar bears of Churchill, which became quite popular.

But there’s one, very small eco-hero whose praises I rarely see sung. I’d like to rectify that. Today, I’m starting my own eco-honors observance for “Doing the Most to Keep Natural Places Natural.” And for this first-annual event, my one-and-only nominee is the mosquito.

I know, I know. The mosquito certainly wouldn’t be your choice. But bear with me—I hope I haven’t lost you yet.

Mosquitoes are so versatile they have been found on mountain peaks. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Mosquito MO

Mosquitoes are alive and well in almost all of the world’s countries and climates. Among the most versatile organisms on the planet, they have been found on mountain peaks and in mines deep below the Earth’s surface. In fact, in Wisconsin where I live, there are 50 different species of mosquitoes; and we often refer to them as the “state bird.”

Since mosquitoes can breed in almost any natural or man-made deposit of water and a lot of our nature forays take place on rivers or in bays, on coasts or in fjords, it’s not surprising that you encounter them on your adventure travels. You know them when you meet them because they bite. And those bites itch.

But as you scratch, here’s what you have to remember: first, mosquitoes provide a major food source for birds, bats, dragonflies and spiders. Would we really want a world without birds or bats or dragonflies? (I might be able to do without the spiders.)

Would you really want a world without dragonflies? ©John T. Andrews

Secondly, only a portion of the mosquito population bites. And although it pains me to say this, it’s the part that is female. While the males are sipping nectar from flowers, females must find appropriate food for their babies—thousands of babies. In her lifetime, a female mosquito will lay about 10, separate, 200-egg batches. To make all of that embryonic tissue, mom mosquito needs a rich source of protein. Unfortunately, that usually turns out to be mammalian blood—which includes ours.

Female mosquitoes hunt their blood host by detecting carbon dioxide and 1-octen-3-ol in human and animal breath and sweat. So far, DEET and picaridin have proven to be the most effective mosquito repellents, since they inhibit the detection of odor cues in the insects.

But as pesky as these tiny, .06-inch insects can be, they just may have accomplished more in the arena of protecting our pristine wildernesses and wild lands than any movie star, amount of money, prestigious personage or media attention has been able to do.

You can thank mosquitos for vast tracts of equatorial rain forest that have survived human exploitation. ©Jared Belson, flickr

I’d like to thank the academy for . . . 

Robert Krulwich, a correspondent for National Public Radio’s “Science Desk,” puts it this way:

“Knowing, as we all do, that humans for eons have been moving into forests and plains and shores and river valleys and hills, pushing animals, vegetables and minerals around in their very human way, destroying more and more life forms, and knowing, as we also do, that we are down to precious few places on Earth where there is still a rich diversity of species, have you ever wondered why, even into the 21st century, there are still large tracts of equatorial rain forest that have somehow survived human exploitation? Who or what has defended those last outposts of ferns, butterflies, beetles and ants from humankind?”

Krulwich posits that the lady mosquito deserves some credit. “Every time human settlers stepped into those areas in serious numbers, they got bit, then they got sick and, then, until very recently, most of them backed off.”

So, while you’re spraying on the picaridin; or applying aloe vera, lime juice or peppermint oil on your skin; or rubbing dryer sheets up and down your legs and arms; or trying the other million and one homegrown mosquito deterrents out there, take time to say a little thank-you to a tiny, fierce eco-warrior.

Here’s to your finding your true (itchy) places and natural habitats,