Saturday, December 10, 2022

Lose the mosquito, save the bird, save the forest.

 Haleakalā National Park hopes to launch a program to protect the park’s few remaining native forest birds from the ravages of avian malaria.

And maybe save our native forests in the process.

This mosquito-borne disease is a primary cause of the loss of our state’s stunning forest singers—all the green and gold and red and brown and slate feathered gems, with their flashing tufts and perky tails and dramatically curved beaks.

The combination of a new sterile mosquito technique and recent advances in drone technology mean this control program is something whose time has just come.

The park has released for public comment its environmental assessment, “Suppression of Invasive Mosquito Populations to Reduce Transmission of Avian Malaria to Threatened and Endangered Forest Birds on East Maui.”

It is available here, along with an opportunity to comment. (I’ll be clear: I have commented in favor of the program and strongly support it.) 

The proposal, in short, is to use drones to release sterile male mosquitoes that have been infected by a natural bacterium called Wolbachia. The males will outnumber natural males, and when they mate with females, no young are produced. That will reduce mosquito populations and presumably reduce new infections with avian malaria.

The Incompatible Mosquito Technique in this case would be aimed at the southern house mosquito (Culex quinquefasciatus), which is the only Hawai’i-resident mosquito to transmit avian malaria.

This disease has wiped out dozens of species of amazing Hawaiian forest flyers, many of which were specialized pollinators of rare native plants—so the entire forest dies with them.

The technique has been used elsewhere on other mosquito species to control diseases like dengue fever.

The World Mosquito Program reported earlier this year: “We have released Wolbachia mosquitoes to reach more than 10 million people (as of June 2022). In areas where Wolbachia is self-sustaining at a high level, notified dengue and chikungunya incidence has been significantly reduced.”

The World Mosquito Program reviews the technology here.

We’ve been talking about it in Hawai’i for several years. Talented writers Brittany Lyte and Nathan Eagle reviewed progress in Honolulu Civil Beat three years ago. 

The park has been holding public meetings on the program even before the draft environmental assessment was released. The environmental assessment comment period runs to January 23, 2023.

And to be clear, there have been lots of programs to control mosquitoes over the decades, and they have included various pesticides, repellents, genetic modification, fungi and now bacteria. Lots of older folks, me included, can remember running in clouds of DDT that were used to control insect pests a couple of generations ago.

How far we’ve come.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2022

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