Tracking the Buzz
A Pitt graduate and noted expert gets bugged often
In a swamp near Gainesville, Fla., Richard F. Darsie Jr. breathes air like hot, damp cotton and listens to what sounds like the whine of miniature fighter jets swooping around his ears. He tilts back his wide-brimmed straw hat, wiping sweat from his brow. When he lowers his arm, he notices one of the noisemakers on his forearm. He didn’t feel the bite; he hardly ever does anymore. He pulls a magnifying glass from his pocket and peers at the insect, its abdomen already swelling red as it draws blood from his skin. Interesting, Darsie thinks. Culex coronator. This isn’t a native breed.
Darsie (FAS ’41) was among the few to notice the recent Floridian incursion of Culex coronator, a species of one of the world’s most unwelcome insects: the mosquito. Hurricane Katrina punched holes in the roof of the Louisiana Superdome, rearranged Biloxi’s floating casinos from one side of Route 90 to the other, and uprooted the lives of thousands. It also may have blown hordes of the tiny bloodsuckers from their Texas home into the Sunshine State, bringing with them serious health concerns.
Darsie knows all about these party crashers. As a leading medical entomologist with the University of Florida in Gainesville, the Scottdale, Pa., native is widely considered the authority on North America’s population of flying hypodermic needles and their transmission of diseases. Which is why Culex coronator—a noted carrier of West Nile virus—piques his innate curiosity.
“It puzzles me,” says Darsie, who often goes on skeeter-seeking forays into the local swamps, nurseries for more than 42 percent of North America’s mosquito population. “This species was confined for years to south Texas. Now it’s started to expand here, and I have a feeling hurricanes like Katrina have helped that situation. There’s no proof yet, but it’s amazing to think about.”
With nearly 3,100 species buzzing across the globe from Honduras to the Himalayas, mosquitoes are masters of adaptation. Darsie has kept pace, devoting more than 60 years to their study and identification and aiding numerous disease-control departments across the country in their battle against St. Louis encephalitis, dengue, canine heartworm, and more.
“The mosquito is too important an insect not to get the attention it receives,” he says.
Last December, Darsie coauthored the latest edition of his book, Identification and Geographical Distribution of the Mosquitoes of North America, North of Mexico (University Press of Florida), a 400-page account on all things class Insecta, order Diptera. (Lesson one: Not all mosquitoes bite. The ones that do are strictly female, needing a blood-rich entrée for egg development.) For Darsie, the research never ends. He has updated the guide every 20-odd years and suffered so many mosquito bites that he has developed an immunity to their itch-inducing saliva.
After more than 10 years in Gainesville, Darsie, 90, is considering retiring to his home state. Bad news for Pittsburgh mosquitoes.