A group of birds native to Hawaii is on the brink of extinction, and their last hope might be millions of mosquitoes. Once, over 50 species of Hawaiian honeycreepers—small, colorful birds with deep cultural significance—filled the native forests. Today, those forests are growing silent. Only 17 species remain, some of which are expected to go extinct in the wild within the year. The decline is due to avian malaria, spread by mosquitoes accidentally introduced to Hawaii in the 1800s. Lacking immunity, these native birds often die after a single mosquito bite.

Small groups of honeycreepers have survived at elevations above 4,000-5,000 feet, where it is too cold for mosquitoes. However, with climate change causing temperatures to rise, mosquitoes are encroaching on these last refuges. In a final effort to save the birds, a coalition of organizations, including the National Park Service, the state of Hawaii, and non-profits like the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project, is adopting a strategy from public health.

In areas where mosquitoes spread diseases among humans, non-reproductive mosquitoes are often released to suppress the population. This approach, known as the “Incompatible Insect Technique,” uses naturally occurring bacteria. Just as humans have bacteria living in their bodies, so do insects. One type, Wolbachia, already found in Maui mosquitoes, alters their reproductive cells.

When two mosquitoes with the same Wolbachia strain mate, they reproduce successfully. However, if a male and female have different strains, their eggs do not hatch. So far, 10 million male mosquitoes with a different Wolbachia strain have been released by helicopter into Maui’s high-elevation forests. Since female mosquitoes mate only once, mating with a modified male ensures they produce no offspring, thus reducing the population. Because mosquitoes live only a few weeks, continuous helicopter releases are necessary to control the population, often in difficult-to-reach areas.

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