News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett B-Sides

May 26, 2011

B-SIDES: Invasion of the buffalo gnats really sucks — blood that is

TERRE HAUTE — Ah, you can’t beat an invigorating springtime walk in Indiana.

In my case last weekend, it was just me, my wife, bright sunshine, a slight breeze …

… and three dozen gnats performing a sting operation as they relentlessly orbited my head for the entire 3-mile trek.

They hail from the Black Fly Family (we’re talking bugs here, not “The Sopranos”). Their scientific name is “simuliidae” but most people call them “buffalo gnats,” because of their humpbacked shape. The “g” in gnat is silent, which is ironic because many adjectives used to describe them begin with that same letter.

Swarms of the biting gnats have hassled Midwesterners in recent decades, but anecdotal reports indicate the pests are particularly active this spring, including the Wabash Valley. “It’s an area-wide phenomenon,” said Jim Luzar, Vigo County Purdue Extension educator.

If you’re wondering whether you’ve ever encountered a buffalo gnat, you probably haven’t, yet. It’s a memorable experience. They’re tiny, between a 16th-inch and an eighth-inch long. They’re blood suckers, with a hankering for exposed skin on the face, neck and ears of humans. Once your head gives them a home, the buffalo gnats don’t roam. The pesky buggers buzz into your eardrums and mouth, crawl under your sunglasses, and tour your neck, looking for just the right spot to bite. Swatting is useless; in fact, it seems to arouse the gnats.

And what kind of parting gift do they leave for their “host”? A welt, which swells and itches for days and days.

“They can be quite a nuisance,” said Ralph Williams, professor of entomology at Purdue University for the past 35 years.

So I asked the professor, why are they here?

Unlike mosquitoes, buffalo gnats breed in clean, fast-moving water, and this year’s heavy spring rains increased the stream levels and may have spurred their development from larvae into adults, Williams said.

That explains the current situation, but why are they here, period? Do buffalo gnats serve any useful purpose?

Well, their larvae and eggs (attached to underwater vegetation) add to the food chain for fish and other aquatic organisms, Williams said. (Fish also find several kinds of bait tasty, yet worms, crickets and dough balls don’t leave welts on my skin, but I digress.) “And, they’re a good indicator of pollution,” he added of the gnats. “If they don’t occur in water that they usually would appear in, it could indicate pollution.”

Indeed, while efforts to clean up water pollution during the past three decades have succeeded, insects that breed in clear, fast-moving streams — such as buffalo gnats, mayflies and stoneflies — are thriving, a University of Illinois entomologist told the Peoria Journal Star last week. Thus, an off-year for gnats could signal pollution, as Williams put it.

Still, it’s hard to celebrate river purity while the buffalo gnats’ A-Team shuttles between your nose and earlobe.

The bugs seem to have the upper hand, temporarily, that is. “There’s no practical control, like you would for mosquitoes,” said Williams. Because the gnats’ habitat is moving water, most tactics used for mosquitoes — such as draining standing water around yards and farms — won’t work. Treating lawns won’t stop gnats, either. As Williams explained, buffalo gnats can travel several miles from their breeding locations.

“There’s no control other than personal products,” Williams said.

He recommends only EPA-registered products for biting insects, such as sprays containing DEET. Because buffalo gnats also target horses, Williams suggests coating the horses’ ears with petroleum jelly to repel the bugs. (I asked if that would work for humans, but he didn’t suggest trying it, saying, “It could be kind of messy.”)

Some folks wear hats with a mesh veil extending from the head to the shoulders. Some put up birdhouses for insect-eaters like purple martins or swallows.

Local golfers have discovered other weapons in the war on biting gnats. Some place a dab of Absorbine Jr. on their neck or their sun visor, and that strong-smelling ointment appears to turn off the gnats, said Candy McCord, proprietor of Mark’s Par 3 Golf Course east of Terre Haute. Other women in a Rea Park golf league in which McCord plays spray themselves with diluted vanilla extract or Listerine. Some drape a dryer softener sheet over their necks from the back of their cap or visor.

Results may vary. “Some ladies are more susceptible than others,” McCord said, chuckling. “Maybe because they’re sweeter.”

This all probably seems quite entertaining to the buffalo gnats. Their amusement is fleeting, though. The neck-biters’ lifespan is short. By mid to late June, most of the gnats will be dead. “They only live a few weeks,” Luzar said, “so that’s a good thing.”

Of course, before they die, they’ll lay eggs in streams, guaranteeing the gnats’ next — as Roger Daltrey once pronounced it — g-g-g-generation.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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