News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Stephanie Salter

June 30, 2010

Stephanie Salter: The evil beasts that taught Dracula everything he knows

TERRE HAUTE — They move among us unseen, stalking victims in silence, using our very breath as a homing signal to guide them to what they desire most from every human being.

Our blood.

Scientists call them Culicoides. Ordinary people have several terms for them, none of which comes close to conveying their stealth or the viciousness of their bite. In fact, the common names are so benign, they sound like precious little characters from “Sesame Street.”

Biting midges.

Punkies.

No-see-ums.

They are hateful, venomous bugs that seem to best like necks, décolletage and soft skin behind the ears — prompting more than one of my neighbors to compare the honking red wounds left behind to that telltale product of spirited, back-seat make-out sessions, hickeys.

Personally, I think of the wounds as bites from miniature vampires — and not vampires like the sensitive Cullen clan of “Twilight,” confining its protein drinks to animal blood.

No, not content just to steal blood for their livelihood, the toothy midges leave behind a vampire’s curse, especially in people who are allergic to midge bites. The curse may not last forever like that of a once-human vampire, but it lingers a lot longer than you would expect from a bug that stands one-eighth of an inch tall.

The itching is intense, making mosquito bites seem like the work of rank amateurs, and it lasts for many days. Worse, the affected area develops a hard core and holds heat, as with a spider bite. To add a creepy element, the skin can be so traumatized after the wound finally recedes, it takes on a rough, scaly feel as though it has been burned.

Even creepier: No-see-ums/biting midges/punkies have been known to get through window screens.

They must be the work of Beelzebub, himself.

Indiana State University professors Steve Lima and Peter Scott provided me with identification and plenty of information about the vampire bugs after I sent an S.O.S. to Scott, describing the characteristics of the attacker and its bite. While biting midges aren’t unheard of around here, they seem to be thriving longer and in a much wider area than usual this year because of the ultra-wet and hot weather we have suffered.

Consulting Swan and Papp’s “The Common Insects of North America,” Scott theorized that the vampire bugs currently making me and my neighbors miserable (and causing us to look like horny teenagers) could be Culicoides variipennis; subspecies, C. variipennis variipennis. This species is “distributed over the forested northern and eastern regions of North America, breeds in the mud and pools around water tanks and along the margin of creeks and marshes” and “belongs to the Biting Midge family, Ceratopogonidae.”

The more I learned, the more I wondered what difference it makes which kind of vampire bug has parts of the Wabash Valley in its grip. There are more than 4,000 species of biting midges in the Ceratopogonidae family and more than 1,000 in just the Culicoides genus of that family. In fact, there are 47 different Culicoides species tormenting southeast Florida, alone.

From the material Lima and Scott forwarded (much of it from the University of Florida’s online “Featured Creatures”), the only complimentary thing I can say about biting midges is that they usually mate in flight: A female zooms into a swarm of males “and the insects are oriented end to end with the ventral parts of the genitalia in contact.”

That’s pretty impressive, even for a bug.

Otherwise, as far as I’m concerned, the biting midge picture is grim.

n It does no good to spray for them as we do mosquitoes because their gestation grounds are all over the map and they out-breed all but daily dousings of insecticide. On islands and isolated inland areas, they can sometimes be tricked by carbon dioxide emissions — people and animals exhale CO2 — to descend upon a spot saturated with insecticide that kills them. But that ruse is expensive and it doesn’t work in a Midwestern city like Terre Haute.

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