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A Western Colorado professor’s mosquito book created so much buzz that it brought him to tears

Timothy Winegard’s book, “The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator,” hit the New York Times bestseller list in early August

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Author and mosquito historian Timothy Winegard. (Handout)

GRAND JUNCTION — Timothy Winegard has plastic mosquitoes stuck on his office door. Books about mosquitoes are packed onto more than one shelf above his desk. A file box, Sharpie-marked “mosquitoes,” sits beside his desk. Mosquito-related events crowd his computer calendar. And mosquito messages clog his email.

So, is this Colorado Mesa University assistant history instructor and author of a new bestseller about mosquitoes tired of talking about these biting, buzzing insects? Is the topic, well, starting to bug him?

“Yes,” whispers this 6-foot-3-inch former hockey player and Canadian military officer as he drops his head to his desk.

But he quickly rallies in a burst of waving arms and booming avowals: “No, really I love it. It’s just that this whole thing has just become surreal.”

Winegard is an odd person to be at the heart of a mosquito storm. 

He is a historian, not an entomologist. But mosquitoes have taken over his life since his book, “The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator,” hit the New York Times bestseller list in early August. A bestseller about bugs had been beyond his wildest dreams.

Timothy Winegard’s book. (Handout)

His four previous books hadn’t made it past the dusty shelves of other history geeks. When he got the news about “The Mosquito” making the book big time, he was so surprised and overwhelmed, he sat on the curb behind his university’s administration building and cried.

Then he was quickly bombarded by all the attention it brought. CBS, NPR, the Smithsonian, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the university’s president, the university’s newspaper editor, the newspaper in his hometown, friends back home in Canada, and other historians all were pursuing Winegard. It got to the point that he had to temporarily have his contact information stripped from the Colorado Mesa website.

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Winegard, 42, had to learn what it means to go viral with a creepy, attention-grabbing topic like mosquitoes. It hasn’t hurt that his book has the allure of a spotlighted sinister-looking mosquito on a black background to scare the bejesus out of browsers from library and bookstore shelves. The mosquito — the tiny bug Winegard refers to as “the deadliest animal on Earth”— is getting a Jaws-like reception in the literary world. 

“It’s been a wild ride,” Winegard said from behind a desk in a tiny, cramped office that is dominated by a Canadian flag and the flag of the Mohawk tribe, the tribe of his grandmother.

This mosquito-driven life changer came about — or “aboot” as this U.S. transplant still pronounces it — thanks to a clever dad and a love of grocery shopping.

Winegard’s father, an emergency room physician, came to his rescue when he was casting about for an idea for a new book. His father repeated, “disease” when Winegard asked for suggestions. His noodling about on that broad topic eventually came down to malaria, one of the worst diseases carried by mosquitoes. 

Winegard started poking around in research files and books, still not completely convinced he wanted to write about an insect. He was on one of his prized grocery-shopping forays when he rounded a corner with his cart and found himself face to face with a giant display for Deep Woods OFF! That clinched it. It was the sign he needed.

Historian Timothy Winegard in his tiny office at Colorado Mesa University, with the flags of his home country, Canada, and his grandmother’s tribe, Mohawk, hanging on the wall. His new book, “The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator,” stirred so much interest when it was released in August, he had to have his contact information stripped from the college website. (Nancy Lofholm, Special to The Colorado Sun)

It took him four years of research and writing to come up with 442 history-laden pages about mosquitoes. 

The premise of “The Mosquito” is that this nuisance insect has shaped history through its deadly impact on wars, politics, travel, trade, land use and climate — from the time of dinosaurs to the present. Winegard equates mosquitoes, with their lethal payloads of diseases like yellow fever and malaria, to armies of men.

A few examples: mosquitoes had a hand in spreading Christianity across Europe; they helped defend Rome from would-be conquerors; they played a large part in the outcomes of the American war for independence and in the Civil War; they were used as a nasty biological weapon by Hitler.

Mosquitoes turn up in the writings of Aristotle, Dante and Shakespeare. Shakespeare mentioned malaria in eight of his plays. When Edgar Allen Poe wrote “The Masque of the Red Death,” he was writing about a mosquito-borne illness.

Mosquito-borne illnesses affected a Who’s Who in history: Alexander the Great, Romulus and Remus, Hannibal, Aristotle, Attila the Hun, Jesus and Robin Hood. Eight U.S. presidents suffered bouts of mosquito-borne malaria. Seven popes died from it.

Dr. Seuss and Walt Disney make appearances in Winegard’s book. They got into anti-mosquito propaganda for troops in the 1940s with films and pamphlets, referring to the disease-carrying Anopheles species of mosquito as “Ann” and depicting her as a lusty seductress ready to drink soldiers’ blood from a wine glass.

The four stages of mosquito development — from left, eggs, pupa, larva and adult insect — are represented in a sculpture hanging on the door of historian Timothy Winegard’s office at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction. (Nancy Lofholm, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“It is shocking to learn that mosquitoes kill more humans than anything else,” said Jess Mullins, a graduate research assistant in entomology at the University of Colorado. She is halfway through Winegard’s book and said she is learning a whole new side of mosquitoes.

Winegard describes his research about mosquitoes as “a treasure hunt” because mosquito references pop up so much in history and literature — in a way, mirroring the 110 trillion mosquitoes that populate the Earth.

Winegard did have to wade out of history and venture into the swamps of science to explain how — and how many — mosquitoes kill by carrying pathogens for at least 15 different diseases. His description of how mosquitoes bite, shown in this graphic National Public Radio video, may have readers running for the Deet. 

It involves six needles, serrated blades that resemble electric carving knives, retractors, a hypodermic syringe and the administration of an anticoagulant — all in a 10-second bloodsucking feast that is necessary nutrition for a mosquito to be able to produce eggs.

This epic also contains a personal piece for Winegard; his great-grandfather and his wife’s grandfather both suffered from malaria while serving in the military. Due to his research for the book, Winegard was able to tell his wife’s grandfather the history behind his contracting malaria in Italy and again when he helped liberate Dachau.

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“The mosquitoes were more relentless than the German shelling,” Becky’s grandfather Rex Raney told Winegard before he died last year.

Winegard’s interest in the war aspects of mosquitoes also comes from personal experience. He served nine years in the Canadian Forces — two of those years attached to the British Army. He rose to the rank of captain. He also earned a Master of Arts in war studies from the Royal Military College of Canada and a Ph.D. in history from the University of Oxford.

Besides war history, Winegard’s other love is hockey. He played in the Ontario Hockey League, one of the top junior leagues in Canada, and the British University Ice Hockey League. He was hoping to break into the National Hockey League when he injured a shoulder. For the past seven years he has coached the men’s hockey team at Colorado Mesa and turned it into the second most watched sport at the university, after football. He has also made it into a force for good in the community by turning games into fundraisers for various causes.

There is only one important element in Winegard’s story left to tell: how a hockey-loving Canadian from a small city in Ontario ended up in a small city in the desert of western Colorado and how the holder of a doctorate from one of the most prestigious universities in the world ends up as an assistant instructor at a small university in that desert.

This bit of history is not driven by mosquitoes.

Winegard was attending a hockey game in Washington, D.C., during a research trip there in 2010. He had bought a scalped ticket on a whim. The seat next to him was occupied by a woman named Becky Raney from Grand Junction. They talked and talked …  and talked. They fell in love. They married. And Winegard moved to Grand Junction to be with his wife and her young son. Jaxson is now 10, and his clever cartoons decorate the walls of Winegard’s office.

Does his grim research on mosquitoes and the fact that they have spread diseases that have killed half of the people who have ever lived on Earth scare him when he thinks of Jaxson’s future?

Winegard points out that there are potential solutions coming down the pike. CRISPR gene editing is one that has raised his hopes. The mosquito species known to carry diseases could potentially have their genes altered so they would be infertile or would only produce male offspring. (Male mosquitoes don’t bite.) So far, experiments with that haven’t gone well, according to a new report from Brazil. More gene-editing experimentation is needed.

In the meantime, a deadly and growing mosquito-borne illness called eastern equine encephalitis has raised new mosquito fears and has Michigan health authorities warning people to stay indoors after dusk.

The mosquito-carried illness Zika has been creeping north. But the big worry in Colorado is West Nile Fever. Colorado is a part of what is being called West Nile Alley because of its location in the middle of a band where fever-carrying mosquitoes like to hang out. (Five people died from the virus in Colorado last year. In the past five years, 85% of West Nile infections in Colorado occurred in August and September.)

The Center for Public Integrity has a new warning about the increased lethality of mosquitoes overall. It is a stark reminder that the horrors laid out in Winegard’s book aren’t all behind us.

“Don’t blame the mosquitoes,” said the author, who admits to having a soft-spot for mosquitoes now that he understands so much about their single-minded purpose. “They are just trying to do their job. They don’t know they are killers.”

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