I have to preface this post by saying in the last three years, the mosquito problem at my house has become vicious. It was always a bit annoying in the summer. The owners of the lot next to our property dug the foundation for a house, only to be told by the county they couldn’t build on the narrow strip of land they owned, and they walked away, leaving a huge open pit in the middle of the lot. Over the years, the thicket has taken over again, but every March the hole fills with water and the sound of spring peepers is almost deafening.
Then developers put in a subdivision behind us, with two retaining ponds for run-off and a large ditch that runs alongside the far end of the property. This ditch regularly floods during heavy rains–so much so our trees along that side of the field are showing signs of root rot.
Our mosquitoes have gone from being annoying to swarming as soon as you leave the building. I can’t even take the dogs out for a quick walk to eliminate in the mornings without putting on bug spray. Even with bug repellent, the “deep woods” kind, the mosquitoes still bite. Heck, they bite through clothing, too.This year I had to buy a mosquito tent so my husband and I could sit outside when the weather was nice.
Let me pause here to remind you how many diseases mosquitoes carry: ones we now have to worry about here in the US. Dengue fever, West Nile, Eastern Equine Encephalitis, and Zika are just a few of concern in our area, and that doesn’t count things like heartworm disease, which affects primarily our pets but in rare cases can affect humans as well.
I looked into spraying the property for mosquitoes, but wasn’t happy with the potential environmental and safety issues. (Look, they told us RoundUp was safe too, and it’s NOT.) And really, the problem isn’t on our property itself: it’s all the surrounding ponds and sources of standing water.
I bought some “dunks” which claim to be environmentally friendly and safe for wildlife and the environment, until you read the fine print. Then it’s a little worrisome. I decided I’d reserve the dunks for a last resort.
Enter the fish.
See, fish eat mosquito larvae. I had this brilliant plan. I’d purchase some “feeder” fish and release them in the various areas of standing water. I did some calculations and decided that 25 little goldfish would suit my needs perfectly. Feeder fish means these little fishes were doomed to be fed to something else, and so I shouldn’t feel bad about giving them a few months of freedom before the ponds either dried up or froze over. The fish would have a nice autumn and I would have fewer mosquitoes. Right?
Enter the hamster.
A friend of mine serves as her elderly father’s caretaker. As such, she’s been particularly careful about where she goes and how she shops because of the pandemic. She orders everything online. She only goes out when she has to. She wears a mask and gloves everywhere she goes. When I brought up the subject of the fish, she asked me for an unusual favor. She’d recently lost her hamster (they don’t live very long) and was interested in a replacement, primarily because her father enjoyed watching it and his world had become very, very narrow since Covid-19 kept him largely housebound. But the pet store wouldn’t let her purchase one online, nor would they bring one out to the car for her. Since I was going to buy some fish, would I pick out a nice, young (see note above how they don’t live very long), friendly hamster for her? A Syrian. Preferably male, but she’d take whatever she could get.
Sure. Why not. I’m no expert on hamsters (I prefer rats or gerbils) but I was willing to give it a shot. Pre-pandemic, I’d been hamster shopping with my friend before so I sort of had an idea what she was looking for. I should point out she’s some kind of Hamster Whisperer and seems to have an odd power over these wee (sometimes vicious) beasties. In the past, I’d seen her temperament-test and turn down dozens of hammies before selecting the one she wanted, but she assured me NO PRESSURE. She’d take the best I could get.
Only then I discovered that releasing goldfish into the wild is a Very Bad Idea. It turns out those tiny little fish–no bigger than my pinkie finger–can grow to be the size of a football and weigh up to four pounds in the right environment–and apparently they are an incredibly invasive species, eating up all the local resources and out-competing the native fish. So while I couldn’t find any regulations forbidding the release of goldfish into the wild, there were lots of articles saying PLEASE DON’T.
I thought long and hard about it. The ponds are designed to catch run-off. They overflow into another collecting basin and then into a large drainage ditch. The ditch funnels the water into the woods at the far end of our property–not into a creek or river where the fish could continue their journey. It would be a dead-end trip if they managed to leave the pond, as the standing water in the ditch would eventually dry up. But now that I knew better, releasing goldfish was off the table.
But I’d promised to go hamster shopping.
No problem. I found out that Rosy-Red minnows–a native North American species–were also sold as feeder fish. I’d just buy some of them instead. Only the pet store didn’t have any Rosy-Reds–they had another variant from China. And let me tell you, releasing a non-native competitive minnow into the wild seemed like an even worse idea than goldfish. So I left the fish department empty-handed and went to look at hamsters.
It’s a good thing my friend was so specific about her needs. There were so many different species of hamsters it wasn’t funny. Winter dwarves, Chinese dwarves, species I’d never heard of. They were all cute as could be, but I was on a mission for a Syrian, so there you are.
There were only two to choose from. Both female. That should have made it easier, right? I had a 50-50 chance of picking the right hamster. But not really. See, that assumes that either one of these hamsters could have met her mysterious qualifications… what if neither one did? What if they were both old? Hamsters live 2-3 years at best–I could easily pick one already halfway through its lifespan. Or what if it was mean? One of the reasons I’m not fond of hamsters is they seem more bitey to me than other pocket pets.
I asked the staff member to open the first cage and let me see the hamster. He lifted the lid and removed the little house where the hamster was sleeping. She popped up out of her bedding and ran beneath the water bottle–someone had disturbed her nest! What was happening? Despite being the middle of the night for her, she hid beneath the water bottle a bit and then began exploring the cage.
“Let me see the other one.”
The employee shrugged and repeated the process with the second hamster. When she lifted the tiny house off this hamster, it rolled onto its back with one foot raised and you could just hear the curse words coming out of its little hamster mouth. The staffer attempted to stroke it, and the hammie was having none of it.
“I’ll take the first one.”
Which is how I came to leave the pet store with a hamster and no fish. My friend was delighted with my choice, by the way, declaring her to be perfect. As is her habit, she names her hamsters after the characters in whatever book she happens to be reading at the time, so I hope Elizabeth Bennet the Hamster leads a long and interesting life. The second hamster was definitely a Catherine de Bourgh.
But I still needed fish.
Hang on. People use minnows for bait, right? I began calling all the outdoor places that sold live bait. Just like my consternation when I recently discovered there is no longer a single office supply store anywhere in my area, I went through the entire Google listings before I found a outdoor supply store still in business that also sold live fish as bait. I finally found a place over 40 minutes away–a tiny back-of-the-beyond outfitter that had a few minnows. On back roads it turned out to be an hour and a half round trip, but it was a success!
And so I got my fish.
Near dusk, I cut through the woods into the development with my container of fish, hoping I wouldn’t run into any of the residents in the process. What would I say if asked what I was doing with a gallon of minnows? That I was taking my fish for a walk?
Fortunately no one was around to question my clandestine activities. Several large frogs plopped into the first pond as I approached it, and I wondered just how many minnows would survive. Reminding myself these little fishes were intended to be BAIT, I set the container in the pond and waited 15 minutes for the water to acclimate to the pond temperature, and then I released them. They swam out in a big knot, hung around for a moment in some confusion, and then darted away into the rushes.
Will I see any of them again? Probably not, though I suspect I will sneak back to the ponds from time to time to check. But hopefully, I won’t see any mosquitoes, either.
But if I do, I’ll try the dunks next time.
At least I did a good job picking out the hamster.