APRIL
1994

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

04-14-94

Why DO Mosquitoes Buzz In People's Ears?

A buzzing mosquito is not one of most people's favorite sounds. Indeed, the soft whine of a flying mosquito has been known to keep people awake all night. The sound of a mosquito almost always prompts a person to exhibit some erratic behavior such as slapping, arm waving, or ducking.

It is not the sound that's the problem. It is the potential for a mosquito bite that worries people. Mosquito females require a blood meal to produce eggs. To acquire such a meal, they fly to a potential blood donor. The wing beat frequency of mosquitoes, sometimes 300 beats per second, produces a sound. That sound has come to be recognized by many animals as a warning of things to come — a little blood letting by a mosquito!

While the sound of a flying female mosquito has ominous overtones to humans, it has an entirely different meaning to male mosquitoes. The sound is a love song. It is the sound produced by the wing beats that attract the males to the females prior to mating. In fact, so powerful is the attraction of love struck male mosquitoes to such a sound, they respond to vibrating tuning forks producing a frequency like that of the flight sounds of their females.

This entire issue, the sound of mosquitoes and the reaction of humans, is summed up in a West African Folk Tale. The tale is retold in a delightful children's' book published by Dial Press entitled “Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears.” The tale begins with an iguana who had difficulty believing a mosquito who reported, “I saw a farmer digging yams that were almost as big as I am.” Rather than listen to such nonsense, the iguana stuck sticks in his ears.

The iguana, who couldn't hear, prompted a series of abnormal behaviors by animals that ultimately led to the death of a baby owl. The mother owl was so distraught that she would no longer hoot, a process that was necessary to bring the sun up. The result was that day did not come. The animal king, the lion, called all the animals to a council fire to discuss the situation. At the town meeting the animals ultimately concluded everything was the result of a lie the mosquito had told the iguana.

Of course, the animals demanded that the mosquito be punished. This action satisfied the owl who resumed her duty of calling up the sun each day. The mosquito, however, remains a felon. She was never brought before the council. To this day she maintains a guilty conscience, and she goes about whining in people's ears asking the question of whether or not people are still mad at her.

When she asks, according to the tale, she gets an honest answer. The answer? She gets smashed! Sometimes actions speak louder than words.

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Andrea McCann