Read an excerpt from RBC Taylor Prize finalist The Mosquito by Timothy C. Winegard

The $30K prize recognizes the best in Canadian literary nonfiction. The winner will be announced on March 2, 2020.
The Mosquito is a nonfiction book by Timothy C. Winegard. (Rylie E. Vavra, Allen Lane)

The Mosquito by history and political science professor Timothy C. Winegard is a finalist for the 2020 RBC Taylor Prize.

The $30,000 prize recognizes the best in Canadian literary nonfiction.

If you had to choose humanity's greatest natural predator, would you pick sharks? Maybe lions, or bears — or even other humans? According to Timothy Winegard, it's actually that winged terror — the mosquito. In his new book, The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator, he argues that the mosquito — and the diseases it carries — has played a remarkable role in shaping our own development, from the birth of the gin and tonic, to the fall of the Roman Empire.

Winegard is a professor at Colorado Mesa University. He has written four books covering a variety of topics, including military history, Indigenous studies and now, mosquitoes. 

The other finalists are:

The winner will be revealed on March 2, 2020. 

It was announced in November that 2020 will be the last year for the prize, which has been given out since 2000.

Winegard was on CBC Radio's The Current to discuss The Mosquito

You can read an excerpt from The Mosquito below.

It has been one of the most universally recognizable and aggravating sounds on earth for 190 million years — the humming buzz of a mosquito. After a long day of hiking while camping with your family or friends, you quickly shower, settle into your lawn chair, crack an ice-cold beer, and exhale a deep, contented sigh. Before you can enjoy your first satisfying swig, however, you hear that all-too-familiar sound signaling the ambitious approach of your soon-to-be tormentors. 

This close up shows a mosquito biting the arm of a Winnipeg resident in this recent undated photo. (Wayne Glowacki/The Canadian Press)

It is nearing dusk, her favourite time to feed. Although you heard her droning arrival, she gently lands on your ankle without detection, as she usually bites close to the ground. It's always a female, by the way. She conducts a tender, probing, 10-second reconnaissance, looking for a prime blood vessel. With her backside in the air, she steadies her crosshairs and zeros in with six sophisticated needles. She inserts two serrated mandible cutting blades (much like an electric carving knife with two blades shifting back and forth), and saws into your skin, while two other retractors open a passage for the proboscis, a hypodermic syringe that emerges from its protective sheath. With this straw she starts to suck 3-5 milligrams of your blood, immediately excreting its water, while condensing its 20% protein content. All the while, a sixth needle is pumping in saliva that contains an anticoagulant preventing your blood from clotting at the puncture site. This shortens her feeding time, lessening the likelihood that you feel her penetration and splat her across your ankle. The anticoagulant causes an allergic reaction, leaving an itchy bump as her parting gift. The mosquito bite is an intricate and innovative feeding ritual required for reproduction. She needs your blood to grow and mature her eggs.

It has been one of the most universally recognizable and aggravating sounds on earth for 190 million years — the humming buzz of a mosquito.- STimothy C. Winegard

Please don't feel singled out, special, or view yourself as a chosen one. She bites everyone. This is just the inherent nature of the beast. There is absolutely no truth to the persistent myths that mosquitoes fancy females over males, that they prefer blondes and redheads over those with darker hair, or that the darker or more leathery your skin, the safer you are from her bite. It is true, however, that she does play favourites and feasts on some more than others. 

Blood type O seems to be the vintage of choice over types A and B or their blend. People with blood type O get bitten twice as often as those with type A, with type B falling somewhere in between. Disney/Pixar must have done their homework when portraying a tipsy mosquito ordering a "Bloody Mary, O-Positive" in the 1998 movie A Bug's Life. Those who have higher natural levels of certain chemicals in their skin, particularly lactic acid, also seem to be more attractive. From these elements she can analyze which blood type you are. These are the same chemicals that determine an individual's level of skin bacteria and unique body odour. While you may offend others and perhaps yourself, in this case being pungently rancid is a good thing, for it increases bacterial levels on the skin, which makes you less alluring to mosquitoes. Cleanliness is not next to godliness, except for stinky feet, which emit a bacterium (the same one that ripens and rinds certain cheeses) that is a mosquito aphrodisiac. Mosquitoes are also enticed by deodorants, perfumes, soap, and other applied fragrances. 

While this may seem unfair to many of you, and the reason remains a mystery, she also has an affinity for beer drinkers. Wearing bright colours is also not a wise choice, since she hunts by both sight and smell — the latter depending chiefly on the amount of carbon dioxide exhaled by the potential target. So all your thrashing and huffing and puffing only magnetizes mosquitoes and puts you at greater risk. She can smell carbon dioxide from over 200 feet away. When you exercise, for example, you emit more carbon dioxide through both frequency of breath and output. You also sweat, releasing those appetizing chemicals, primarily lactic acid, that invite the mosquito's attention. Lastly, your body temperature rises, which is an easily identifiable heat signature for your soon-to-be tormentor. On average, pregnant women suffer twice as many bites, as they respire 20% more carbon dioxide, and have a marginally elevated body temperature. As we will see, this is bad news for the mother and the fetus when it comes to infection from Zika and malaria. 

Please don't go on a shower, deodorant, and exercise strike or shelve your beloved beer and bright T-shirts just yet. Unfortunately, 85% of what makes you attractive to mosquitoes is prewired in your genetic circuit board, whether that be blood type; natural chemical, bacteria, or CO2 levels; metabolism; or stink and stench. At the end of the day, she will find blood from any exposed target of opportunity. 

Excerpted from The Mosquito by Timothy C. Winegard. Copyright © 2019 by Timothy C. Winegard. Published by Allen Lane, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?