Mosquito ‘birth control’ could save the Hawaiian honeycreeper, but not everyone is on board

The Hawaiian honeycreeper is a highly endangered bird species, whose population has declined...
The Hawaiian honeycreeper is a highly endangered bird species, whose population has declined severely due to avian malaria, a deadly disease for birds that is carried by mosquitoes.(DLNR)
Published: Jun. 8, 2022 at 5:27 PM HST|Updated: Jun. 9, 2022 at 2:11 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A state committee will meet Thursday to discuss whether to import three species of infertile mosquitoes as part of a project aimed at stopping avian malaria from killing off the endemic Hawaiian honeycreeper.

The Hawaiian honeycreeper is a highly endangered bird species whose population has declined severely due to avian malaria, a deadly disease for birds that is carried by mosquitoes. The honeycreeper has inhabited the islands for millions of years, but when malaria-containing mosquitoes were introduced the birds’ immune systems were not equipped to fight the disease.

While there have been many proposed solutions, organizations are looking at a long-term fix to save the honeycreeper population. A project called “Birds, Not Mosquitoes” is working with the state to help import mosquitoes implanted with wolbachia, a bacterium that would curb reproduction of wild mosquitoes that carry avian malaria.

The project said the strain acts as a “birth control” for the mosquitoes, causing their eggs to become infertile.

The imported male mosquitoes will not bite, according to state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Ahead of the Agriculture Department’s Plants and Animals Advisory Committee meeting Thursday, some have taken to social media to voice concerns and question whether the mosquitoes are genetically modified organisms.

DLNR said that the process does not use genetic modification.

“The proposed technique does not modify the genes of mosquitoes or Wolbachia,” said DLNR Director Suzanne Case.

“It is a similar process to taking antibiotics, then eating probiotics, to replace the existing community of bacteria with a different community within your stomach.”

If granted the import permit, infertile Southern house, yellow fever and Asian tiger Mosquitoes would be brought to the islands.

The DLNR said that all three of these species are already present in Hawaii.

Additional facts:

  • The birth control process for the mosquitoes can be reversed since the implanted bacterium is not self-sustaining. If scientists choose to reverse the cycle, BNM says they could stop releasing male mosquitoes and they would then die out.
  • Wolbachia, the bacteria used to make the mosquitoes infertile, was first introduced to Hawaii in 1826.
  • Scientists say climate change contributes to the extinction of the Hawaiian honeycreeper. Mosquitoes are attracted to warm areas. As temperatures increase in Hawaii, mosquitoes are encroaching on forest bird ecosystems.
  • Only 17 species of the honeycreeper remain, according to BNM.

For more information on the project, click here.

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