Biting midges are considered vampires of the Insect World

Biting Midges
Biting Midges Special to the Sun Herald

Biting midges are very tiny flies that are the bane of the gardener’s existence.

There are over two dozen species in Mississippi. Active throughout most of the year, their populations peak twice a year. Unfortunately, it’s when the weather is most pleasant and you’re ready to enjoy the outdoors. Most of their biting activity occurs during the early morning and late evening. It can happen at anytime during the day (if the sky is overcast) and throughout the night.

As with most parasitic flies, it’s the females that do the actual biting. They need your blood for the protein. Without a blood meal, their eggs won’t be viable. Unlike mosquitoes which insert a needle-like proboscis into your skin and suck up blood, biting midges chew their way in to form a puddle of blood and rupture cellular material. That’s why the pain they cause is so far beyond what you’d expect from something so small.

At least your average mosquito is good enough to inject a type of anesthetic so you don’t feel the bite. Once the midge has lapped up a little of your blood, she flies off and deposits her eggs in moist soil usually around swamps or salt marshes, but an overly watered lawn will do. After the larvae hatch, they begin feeding on algae and other organic matter found in the moist soil.

With this year’s superabundance of rain, there are even more sites around for a Mama midge to lay her eggs. The immature midges are fairly impervious to any types of control we can use against them. Other than draining the wetlands, there’s not much you can do. The adults, however, are readily killed by almost any insecticide.

Fogging tends to be the most efficient method to use against the adults. But, the effects are only temporary. Because, during their peak population periods, adults are emerging from the ground almost continuously and treated areas get repopulated very quickly. Fortunately, biting midges are very weak fliers and don’t travel too far from where they emerged. The same controls you use for mosquitoes will work against no-see-ums.

For any of you that plan on working outside while the gnats are active, your best defense is an application of insect repellent. The traditional repellents containing DEET work very well against most biting flies. However, small children, the elderly and pregnant women may want to avoid repellants based on DEET.

In the past few years, a new repellant has come on the market containing the active ingredient picaridin. Picaridin based repellants are now as common on our shelves as those containing DEET. Picaridin has a number of advantages over DEET. It’s safe for use by anyone of any age. If doesn’t shatter watch crystals or melt plastic and rubber.

Best of all, it doesn’t stink. Some body lotions have also been reported to “repel” insects. However, research has shown these properties to be nonexistent. The lotions have no repellency. They are primarily mineral oils. When applied to the skin, they form a thin film that temporarily acts as a barrier to small biting flies like gnats.

But once the lotion is absorbed into the skin, as it’s designed to do, that protection goes away. Nor do citronella candles or lamps have real effect against midges. If burned out doors, they can afford some protection if there is no breeze. The smoke can hide your presence from a hungry gnat.

They have the ability to locate their host by keying in on three things: CO2, enzymes and body heat. They first detect your breath and follow the concentration gradient. When they’re closer, they switch to airborne enzymes which you also exhale. Finally, they home in on your body heat. If any of these keys are missing or masked, they can’t find you.

The smoke from the burning citronella oil can mask your CO2 and exhaled enzymes. But the slightest breeze will disperse the protective smoke and leave you visible to the ravenous midges. And don’t waste your money on a “bug zapper.” In order for an insect to get zapped, they have to make contact with two wires at the same time.

Midges are too small. They just fly through the gaps. They are, however, weak fliers and a cheap, well placed box fan can keep them away from you while you work and play outside. Your best bet for avoiding the gnats: try to work when the punkies are less active, wear long sleeves, long pants, shoes with socks and a hat while outside.

Tim Lockley, a specialist in entomology, is retired from a 30-year career as a research scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For answers to individual questions, please send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Tim Lockley, c/o Sun Herald, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi MS 39535.