by Bruce Cherney
Children in Manitoba can be forgiven if they are heard chanting, “Rain, rain, go away/Come again another day.”
While the province has been incessantly under a deluge of rain, the only critters benefitting seem to be ducks, geese and mosquitoes. But, while an increase in the number of ducks and geese can be a cause of celebration, the same cannot be said of mosquitoes.
Standing water is what mosquitoes love and standing water is what we have in the millions of litres across the land.
The mosquito numbers have increased so dramatically that Winnipeg and the RM of West St. Paul have been ordered by the province under the Environment Act to spray for adult mosquitoes with the chemical malathion.
The city said until further notice that fogging will continue between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. in designated areas within Winnipeg. Every day, the city will be releasing information on what area of the city will be fogged (for more information, go to www.winnipeg.ca/bugline or call 986-3210.)
No human cases of West Nile have been identified, but a high number of the carrier mosquitoes — Culex tarsalis — have been found.
In 2003, 142 Manitobans were infected with the West Nile virus, 35 became seriously ill and two people died. In neighbouring Saskatchewan, 12 people died.
The presence of the West Nile virus gives Manitobans one more reason to hate mosquitoes, a dislike that has been part of this province’s history since the first coming of First Nations people. They even tell the tale that the mosquito was created as a punishment.
The New Nation, August, 1870, said “Red River Indians have a curious legend respecting the origin of mosquitoes.”
According to the legend hundreds of years ago there was a famine and offerings were made to the Great Spirit to ease their hunger.
Two hunters came upon a white wolverine, “a very large animal,” which they killed. An old woman jumped out of the skin and said she was a “Manito,” and promised them plenty of game to hunt as long as they treated her well.
The famine passed, but the natives came to dislike the old woman because she continually took the best pieces of game for herself. And, despite her warning that a great calamity would befall them, they killed her as she ate a piece of reindeer.
Time passed without any great calamity so the people began to believe the old woman had deceived them. But, a hunting party chased a reindeer which led them to a spot where the old woman had been killed. They “came upon her skeleton, and one of them in derision kicked the skull with his foot. In an instant a small spiral vapour-like body arose from the eyes and ears of the skull ... that attacked the hunters with a great fury and drove them to the river for protection ... the air became full of avengers of the old woman’s death. The hunters upon returning to camp, found all the Indians suffering terribly from the plague. Ever since that time the Indians have been punished by the mosquitoes for their wickedness to their preserver, the Manito.”
Henri Julien, a 21-year-old illustrator sent to cover the march west of the North West Mounted Police in 1874, described the “Manitoba mosquito” as the worst species of the insect in the world.
“They insinuate themselves under your clothes, down your shirt collar, up your sleeve cuffs between the buttons of your shirt bosom. And not one or a dozen, but millions at a time.”
No Manitoban living today would argue with the observation of Julien. Winnipeg has gained unflattering recognition as the mosquito capitol of Canada. In fact, many have suggested that local mosquitoes are so big that they should be declared Manitoba’s provincial bird. Some have even said that Manitoba’s mosquitoes are so large that they can carry off babies.
Rev. George Young (1821-1910), who established a mission church in 1871 in Winnipeg, related that one prairie wit had commented that the local mosquitoes were so big that “many of them weigh a pound.”
The Brandon Sun Weekly of May 8, 1884, told a story of “two Winnipeg gentlemen” who had returned by train from the Rockies and related that they had been on a mosquito hunting excursion. “They assert that in the valleys the mosquitoes are in full bloom, and so large that they managed to slaughter two only after a desparate struggle. We understand that they brought the carcasses home with them, but we have not learned whether a flat car was found necessary for the purpose or not.”
The Sun Weekly editor attributed this tale to the invigorating air of the North-West (prairies), exerting its “influence on the brian.”
Of course, the carrying off of babies by insects rivaling birds in size and the slaughter of two mosquitoes requiring a railway flat car to carry is pure myth, but no one can dispute the fact that mosquitoes can be a plague of Biblical proportion whenever one ventures outside on a calm, warm summer evening.
While the residents of Komarno — the Ukrainian word for mosquito — have erected a statue in honour of the buzzing terrors, the majority of Manitobans can be forgiven for not holding the same reverence for one of the province’s more irritating signs of summer.
Winnipeg has 38 species of mosquitoes, according to the city’s insect control department, and each species has a particular biology and behaviour. These species can occur at different times during the season or at different times during the day.
The problem with Winnipeg and much of southern Manitoba is that it is relatively flat prairie with clay subsoils which prevent water from being absorbed into the ground. The water that collects provides an ideal breeding habitat for mosquitoes.
According to one native legend, there was originally one mosquito, who was fed with blood by the spirits until his belly became so large that it burst, and from it came forth the myriads of mosquitoes that exist today.
Their presence was deemed to irksome by early European explorers and settlers that they filled diaries, journals and books with accounts of their antics. These accounts reveal often futile attempts to escape the tiny vampires.
In his journal, Alexander Henry, a fur trader with the North West Company, said the weather was fine on July 9, 1814 near Shoal Lake (there are actually three lakes next to each other called North, East and West Shoal lakes), between the southern extremities of lakes Winnipeg and Manitoba, but “the mosquitoes tormented us as usual. Our horses which had little rest last night, were almost ungovernable, tearing up the grasses, throwing their fore feet over their heads to drive away the insects, and biting their sides till our legs were in danger of their teeth. In a word the poor tortured and enraged beasts often attempted to throw themselves down and roll in the water. We also suffered intolerably, being almost prevented from breathing.”
“We made a fire, laid some boards on the ground, spread a blanket upon them, pulled the ‘mosquito bars’ over our heads, and lay down to attempt to sleep,” wrote William Francis Butler in the Great Lone Land, a book about his travels from Fort Garry to Rocky Mountain House and back in 1870-71. “It was a vain effort; mosquitoes came in myriads, little atoms of gnats penetrated through the netting of the ‘bars,’ and rendered rest and sleep impossible.”
James Carnegie, the Earl of Southesk, while travelling throughout the West in 1859 and 1860, related the discomfort experienced when mosquitoes were first encountered. “Not expecting them, I had no gloves with me, and, in spite of constant watchfulness, my hands were excessively bitten, and so empoisoned that they swelled up and grew very painful, such feverishness succeeding as to prevent me from sleeping for the whole of the following night. I never again suffered so much in this way, for the blood gets by degree accustomed to the venom of the bites — there is less inflammation afterwards, though quite as much annoyance at the moment.”
Trooper John George Donkin, who served with the NWMP from 1884 to 1888, said upon camping on a hill without the benefit of tents, “... in the twilight the plague arose. Clouds of mosquitoes that darkened the sky came from every direction and assailed us. We made fires of damp grass, but to no purpose.”
When writing about his six-year stay in the territory of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Robert Ballantyne, said once summer began “mosquitoes become perfectly insupportable. Nothing could save one from the attacks of these little torments. Almost all other insects went to rest with the sun: sandflies, which bit viciously during the day went to sleep at night. the large bulldog, whose bite is terrible, slumbered in the evening; but the mosquito, the longlegged, determined, vicious, persevering mosquito, whose ceaseless hum dwells for ever on the ear, never went to sleep ...
“It was useless killing thousands of them; millions supplied their place. The only thing, in fact, that can protect one during the night (nothing can during the day), is a net of gauze hung over the bed; but as this was looked upon by the young men as somewhat effeminate, it was seldom resorted to. The best thing for destruction, we found, was to fill our rooms with smoke, either by burning damp moss, or by letting off large puffs of gunpowder, and then, throwing the doors and windows open, to allow them to fly out. This, however, did not put them all out; so we generally spent an hour or so before going to bed, in hunting them with candles.”
Ballantyne said this last measure was seldom enough to destroy the intruders, and wondered if someone looking in through a key-hole in the door might see them wandering about through the night “in our shirts, looking for mosquitoes, like unhappy ghosts doomed to search perpetually for something they can never find.”
Francis Bodnar, who came with her school teacher husband to Gimli in 1910, said each spring their were myriads of mosquitoes. “As our windows did not have good screens, they would get into the house. We used to make one smudge for our animals (a time when animals were often housed in the same building) and another around the house for ourselves, but in spite of this the mosquitoes would get into the house in such numbers that it was impossible to sleep. The baby suffered the most.”
Bodnar said she and her husband killed as many as they could with rolled up newspapers.
“In the morning we realized that we had created another problem; the mosquitoes having filled themselves with the blood of the poor animals, left the gore on the walls and as a consequence I had to whitewash the interior of our house.”
Mary Agnes Fitzgibbon marvelled at the size of Manitoba’s mosquitoes, calling them the largest in all of Canada. After journeying from Eastern Canada over the back-wrench Dawson Road, a corduroy road of logs through the bush leading to the Red River Settlement in the late-1860s, she felt she would be driven mad by their ceaseless assaults.
She related how smudges were built in a vain attempt to keep mosquitoes at bay at milking time. A cook told her that the summer before, their cow “had been literally tortured to death.”
During a particularly bad night, “I heard the men outside fighting with and swearing at their winged enemies,” she added.
Mrs. Cecil Hall, a settler in rural Manitoba, commented on the relief she experienced with the arrival of spring after a hard winter until the mosquitoes arrived in late-May. “I don’t believe you will ever see us again; they (mosquitoes) bite so fearfully, even in the day-time, that they devour us up entirely.”
After returning from one trip to town, she and her family hurried their team of horses on and still were smothered by mosquitoes, “I never saw such clouds of them, and on our return there was a general rush for the bottle of ammonia, which is the only thing that allays the irritation.”
Alexander Morris, the lieutenant-governor of Manitoba, writing in July 1876, described a trip he made to the Long Plain on the Assiniboine River near present-day Portage la Prairie, where he was engaged in the preliminary negotiations for a treaty between the First Nations people of the area and the federal government. “Owing to the prevalence of heavy rain the roads were in such bad conditions that I was four days in reaching the Long Plain ... Added to my other discomforts was the presence of mosquitoes in incredible numbers, so that journey and sojourn at the Plain were anything but pleasurable.”
In the Ladies Book of Useful Information, published in Ontario in 1896, the only way said to get rid of mosquitoes was to take a gum camphor, a piece about one-third the size of an egg, and evaporate it over a lamp or candle, taking care that it does not ignite. “The smoke will soon fill the room and expel the mosquitoes.”
In an era when technology was less advanced, people had to resort to finding relief with whatever was on hand, especially when faced with such a persistent foe.