ID: PH01_MOS / Elaine Barker

TitleWildlife Observations - Mosquitos
AbstractAs late as mid-November I was still being bitten by mosquitos in the garden on mild days. I'm one of those people mosquitos love. Hearing their whine at night guarantees a sleepless night or acrobatics with a rolled newspaper which has the effect of thoroughly waking me up. Over winter I do still find the occasional mosquito in my greenhouse so it's clear they're overwintering ready to start breeding as soon as the weather warms up.

These days the mosquito bite is a painful nuisance but in the past a bite could be a lot more serious.

This area was plagued with mosquitos which carried a form of malaria up until the nineteenth century and it had a profound effect on marshland populations for several hundred years.

Malaria was known as 'the ague' or 'quarterne fever' and was attributed to the noxious vapours of the stagnant marshes, not the real culprit as we know now - the English mosquito or Anopheles Atroparvus.

There are in fact thirty three species of mosquito indigenous to Britain, twenty of them bite and five belong to the Anopheles family which remain potential transmitters of malaria. It is only the female which bites. Blood from a human or animal is essential to her laying eggs and it is in the stagnant pools of the marshes, wet ditches and our water butts and ponds where the insect will lay her eggs and the larvae spend their lives. The larvae breathe through a tube which has to be protruded periodically above the surface of the water, they will suffocate if they cannot do this.

A travel writer who visited Essex in 1590, John Norden, was unable to comende the healthfulness of it: And especiallie nere the sea coastes ... and other lowe places about the creeks which gave me a most cruell quarterne fever.

Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, travelled round this area in 1723. Indeed, he leased a house in Mile End in Colchester and set the early part of his novel, Moll Flanders, in Colchester. His remarks about these marshy areas have been often quoted

It was very frequent to meet with men that had from five or six, to fourteen or fifteen wives ... the reason was this ... that they being bred in the marshes themselves and seasoned to the place, did pretty well with it, but that they always went ... into the uplands for a wife, that when they took the young lasses out of the wholesome and fresh air, they were healthy, fresh and clear, and well, but when they came out of their native air into the marshes, among the fogs and damps, there they presently changed their complexions, got an ague or two, and seldom held it above half a year, or a year at most. Tour Through The Eastern Counties Daniel Defoe

Those infected with malaria suffered bouts of illness, became sallow of complexion, anaemic, lethargic and feverish. There are seasonal fluctuations in the mosquito population and usually after a hot summer it peaks, so, many villagers from previous centuries would therefore suffer an attack of malaria in the autumn which often recurred in the spring. Their general health was so poor that the additional debilitating and frequent bouts of sickness could prove fatal and did affect the population on the coast. Research into seventeenth and early eighteenth century deaths does show a marked increase in these coastal areas compared with inland. People in good health and well-nourished had a good chance of surviving.

Those who were wealthy and educated kept away where possible; rectors were reluctant to take up residence locally, appointing a hapless curate in their place, and landowners often lived elsewhere leasing their land to local farmers. By the mid-eighteenth century health generally was improving. It is thought that draining marsh land and ending the practice of sharing accommodation with animals helped reduce the mosquito population. Quinine also became more widely available and cheaper in the nineteenth century.

A rumour I'd heard that the Mersea marshes were sprayed with DDT in order to control the mosquito was confirmed to be true by some of Mersea's long-standing residents.

Now, as we are experiencing climate change and as more alien insects are making their way over the water there is an awareness that malaria may rear its head again in this country.

For now, mosquitos are just a nuisance and most of us spray ourselves with chemicals to keep them away. It is said eating a lot of onion or garlic helps as does taking Vitamin B Complex (the yeasty smell deters the insect) hence the suggestion that we eat lots of Marmite! Heating citronella in the form of Citron Candles is also recommended as a repellent.

To deter them, some swear by putting a light film of vegetable oil on the surface of a water butt to clog up the larvae's breathing tubes. Covering water butts will stop the adults laying their eggs in the water in the first place.

To relieve the itch we all have our preferred lotions and, a new one on me, is dabbing the bite with lavender oil. In the worst cases you can also take anti-histamine.

In the food chain, of course, hundreds of thousands of mosquitos are eaten by bats and birds and their larvae eaten by fish, so they're not all bad!

Elaine Barker

This article was originally published in Peldon Parish Magazine.

AuthorElaine Barker
PublishedJanuary 2020
SourceMersea Museum