A bite for your thoughts?

We don’t have to like everybody who helps us, I guess, but sometimes it’s because we don’t know they’re helping. The help we receive may be indirect -second or third-hand- and the cost-benefit ratio fools us into thinking we need to be wary.

I had a Grade 12 Latin teacher like that, Mr. Dallder. “Salvete discipuli,” he would shout at start of every class and smash his wooden yardstick (we hadn’t yet gone metric) on his desk to demand our attention. It was an attempt to force a “Salve Magister” reply from us, and to make us sit ruler straight and attentive in our seats. We were never sure he always used the correct Latin phrasing, and he almost always pronounced his ‘v’s as ‘w’s, but all we cared about was not incurring his wrath. He was the only teacher to shout or bang things in the classroom, and it was usually a prologue to wading our way through Ovid, or Virgil (even though he pronounced Virgil with a ‘v’ for some reason). Perhaps he banged his yardstick to command respect, much like using a megaphone or whatever, but after each class, we all complained how much we disliked him. And yet he stood out so vividly from our other instructors, we had to admit a grudging admiration for his forceful teaching methods. Nobody misbehaved in Mr. Dallder’s room.

Neither he, nor his topics were easy to forget. To this day, I can still remember having to stand at the front of the class, his yardstick at the ready, and recite the opening lines of Virgil’s Aeneid that we were charged with memorizing: Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris Italiam, fato profugus, Laviniaque venit litora… I can’t say I am still able to remember the correct words, or much about case or declensions, but I can distinctly remember his facial expressions as he worked his way through what he called the Papal pronunciations. I even ended up taking a Latin course in my  first year of university because he’d made it seem so… unique and even, well, fun.

So, help comes in many forms -some of it unrecognizable at first. Take mosquitoes, as an almost non sequiturian example. Pretty well universally maligned, they are poster-children for what we might like to eliminate from our cities, if not our world. Okay, so they serve as fast-food for many other species, but ridding the world of MacDonald’s, while perhaps inconvenient, would be unlikely to precipitate either economic or comestibular collapse. Nature would continue on much as before without mosquitoes -insectivores would merely switch brands, and plants would go on handing out pollen to anybody else who happened by…  I mean, would they even notice?

I have to admit that I fell solidly in the anti-mosquito camp until I came across an enlightening article in the Conversation, that gave me pause for thought: https://theconversation.com/the-bizarre-and-ecologically-important-hidden-lives-of-mosquitoes-127599

It was written by Daniel A.H. Peach, at the time a postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Zoology at the University of British Columbia, and he pointed out that ‘Mosquitoes have many functions in the ecosystem that are overlooked. Indiscriminate mass elimination of mosquitoes would impact everything from pollination to biomass transfer to food webs… There are about 3,500 mosquito species, many of which want nothing to do with biting humans or any other animal. Even in species that bite, it is only the females that do so and just to develop their eggs.’ Awhh…

‘The fundamental food of all adult mosquitoes is plant sugar and its associated nutrients, most often in the form of floral nectar. In the process of looking for nectar, mosquitoes pollinate many of the flowers they visit.’

But, even more interesting, I think, ‘Mosquitoes locate flowers by a variety of cues including odour and vision, and recent research has discovered that some of the odour constituents of certain flowers that mosquitoes feed on (and pollinate) are shared with humans. One interpretation of this is that to mosquitoes, some flowers may smell like humans, possibly indicating the evolutionary origins of why some mosquitoes take blood.’ Uhmm… really?

That being said, mosquitoes still remain the world’s ‘most deadly animal’ so ideally we need to find a balance between their value to the ecosystem, and their danger to the rest of us. Attempts to eliminate them entirely would be fraught, as would accepting the diseases they transmit. And, as the author points out, ‘Not all mosquito species are responsible for spreading pathogens. Targeting specific species or making the mosquitoes themselves immune to pathogens and thus unable to spread them would protect humans while keeping the ecosystem function of mosquitoes intact.’

We’ve all read about the declining numbers of pollinators -everything from bees to butterflies, ants to flies- most being taken down indiscriminately by insecticides and various herbicides, and yet who but an entomologist would even think of the mosquito as a significant contributor both to biomass –‘[although] the contribution of nutrient-cycling by mosquitoes to plant growth and other ecosystem functions remains unstudied, the amount of biomass involved implies that it may be important’- and to ‘aquatic food chains by serving as food sources for many predators, including fish and birds’?

Mosquitoes have their place, I suppose… so do the Mr. Dallders of the world, I guess. I remember he would occasionally try to demonstrate his Latin’s benefits in our lives with his unique command of phraseology. He knew, for example, that we were taking the Shakespearean play Macbeth in another class. One day near the end of the term, he left some  windows open in his classroom one warm June day and some rogue mosquitoes wandered in. We could all hear their buzzing around our ears, so Mr. Dallder took it upon himself to mimic those famous words of Lady Macbeth: “Exi, damnate culex!” he shouted and slammed his ruler onto blackboard, hoping to kill one that had landed there by accident, I suppose.

None of us caught on, however; nobody laughed -we only sat up straighter in our seats, wondering what had brought on the noise. Being clever only works if you don’t have to explain it -that was another thing we learned from him. 

“Lady Macbeth,” he said, blushing, slightly I remember. “I was hoping the brighter amongst you would recognize her injunction against the spot of blood that so concerned her and drove her insane… but it was a vain hope, I see…” He cast his eyes around the room and saw that I was the only one with a smile on his face. I thought it was quite clever of him, actually -once he’d explained the reference, that is. But then again I was the youngest in the class and was impressed by a lot of things in those days, I remember -not the least of which was Dallder’s ability to kill a solitary mosquito with a yardstick.

I’m still not sure he proved how useful his Latin could be, though -or, having now read Peach’s essay, whether Mr. Dallder even wondered about its unintended consequences…

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