Biting Midges—Vampires of the Insect World

Updated on December 17, 2016

Swarming Species

Biting midges often fly in swarms and are ferocious biters. When they attack, usually all that’s visible to the naked eye are tiny red ‘spots’ – which are actually these little parasites filling up on your blood! The name no-see-um (because of their tiny size) is just one nickname; they're also known as punkies, gnats, five-O's, sand flies, or midgies.

Less than 1/8 inch long, biting midges belong to the insect order Diptera, (two-winged flies) family Ceratopogonidae, genus Culicoides. Warm weather brings them out, and just like their close relative the mosquito, it's only the female that bites, taking blood to provide a source of protein for her eggs. Females of the Culicoides species are attracted to light and readily enter dwellings in search of a blood meal. They typically don't start to feed until dusk, and continue feeding at night.

Biting midges should not be confused with other midges (Chironomidae) that are much larger and resemble mosquitoes. Chironomidae species don't bite, suck blood, or carry disease like mosquitoes or biting midges do, and are considered more of a nuisance than anything else. They form swarms at dusk and continue to fly around until nightfall which makes outdoor activities unpleasant because as well as inhaling them into your mouth and nose, they can get into your eyes and ears.

In the U.S. biting midges are particularly bad along the shores of oceans, lakes, ponds and rivers, and will bite day or night. Their bites are as painful and irritating as any mosquito bite, usually starting as a small red welt or water-filled blister that itches. Once scratched, the welt can break open and bleed, but the itching usually continues. Allergic or sensitive individuals can develop long-lasting painful and itchy lesions.

Biting midges (Ceratopogonidae) transmit a variety of diseases and, in the U.S., infect sheep and cattle with blue tongue virus. This virus is a major cause of disease in livestock in the western U. S., but it does not infect humans. They can also transmit African Horse sickness and another disease called Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) to horses. EHD can prove lethal to deer.

Midges Love Florida

These pests are troublesome in coastal areas, and particularly abundant around mangrove swamps and salt marshes, so no surprises they love Florida. With its temperate climate and regular rainfall, Florida provides ideal habitat for both mosquitoes and midges, and is home to 47 species; only seven of which are significant human pests. Unfortunately mosquito control districts in Florida are not funded to provide control of biting midges.

Spraying with insecticide has had limited success. Targeting the adult population is extremely difficult because no-see-ums reproduce at such a rapid rate, that there’s no way to keep up. It would require insecticide applications on a daily basis in some areas, which isn’t efficient or environmentally sound. Many government agencies that provide mosquito control services, receive numerous requests for help in dealing with biting midges. However, most of the programs are not mandated or allowed to respond by providing any form of midge control. Fortunately the private sector has come up with a pretty effective solution.  Because with biting midges it’s a case of DIY prevention and protection.

Bite Protection

Females typically bite at dawn or dusk, often in dense swarms, and usually in the vicinity of water, marshes or rotting vegetation.

If you're out an about at these times your chances of being bitten are that much higher. If you can’t (or don’t want to) stay indoors, when you do go outside make sure to wear light colored clothing; preferably long pants and long-sleeved shirts, shoes and socks, and apply insect repellents. Typically those containing DEET or Picaridin are also effective for use against no-see-ums. But check the label and apply as directed.

When and where they bite you will depend on the species. Some species will attack you around the head and eyes, while others attack the ankles, often crawling up the body under clothes.

Midge-Proof Your Home

Biting midges are notoriously difficult to eradicate however there are steps you can take to minimize their impact.

Species of the Culicoides are attracted to light and readily enter dwellings to feed. Installing window and door screens will help keep these pests from venturing inside your home. However, as most biting midges can pass through regular 16-mesh insect wire screen and netting, a smaller mesh size, is required.

Because no-see-ums are so small and are weak fliers, ceiling and window fans are a great idea and can be used at high speeds to keep them out of small areas.

Replace your outdoor lights with red or yellow “bug” lights to reduce their attractiveness to biting midges.

During the day they love to rest in dense vegetation, so keep lawns mown and bushes trimmed.

Mega-Catch's ULTRA Mosquito Trap with CO2. Illustrations by Serge Bloch; F. Martin Ramin for The Wall Street Journal (photos)
Mega-Catch's ULTRA Mosquito Trap with CO2. Illustrations by Serge Bloch; F. Martin Ramin for The Wall Street Journal (photos) | Source

10,000 Biting Midges Caught in 1 Day

Research has shown that biting midges, like many species of mosquito, are attracted to C02, which makes trapping one of the most effective methods of controlling these backyard biters. However it’s not the only cue they follow, they’re also able to detect body heat, odors (Octenol) and UV (ultraviolet light). Octenol by itself isn't attractive but appears to act as a synergist with CO2 to increase catches. In a study to test the effectiveness of CO2 on biting midges, CO2 + Octenol + Blue light produced the highest capture rates.

The Mega-Catch™ Ultra is one of the few multi-stimuli traps on the market that combines all the attractants necessary to attract, trap and kill biting midges. In fact Mega-Catch™ Ultra traps were used by USDA entomologist, Dr. Daniel Kline who conducted comparison tests in the Lower Suwannee Wildlife Refuge, on the west coast of Florida. Using the Ultra trap with CO2, he recorded the capture of 10,000 biting midges in one day. Source

Excerpt From Test Result

Date
Position
Treatment
Mosquitoes Captured
Midges Captured
07/06/01
C-2
Mega-Catch CO2 Wet Catch Method
6,887
10,000

Beware the Full Moon

Now a final tidbit; a full moon can cause mosquito bites to increase by as much as 500%. And in keeping with their reputation as the Vampires of the insect world, biting midges also follow the lunar cycle. Biting midges, especially culicoides are most active and biting those first few days after a full moon and new moon, so take special care and cover up.

Questions & Answers

    Comments

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      • profile image

        Vincent 

        6 weeks ago

        All true, i was just camping in northern michigan and the midges destroyed me. I might be allergic and my wife and i used 4 cans of bug spray. They suck. Nice article

      • profile image

        kk 

        6 months ago

        boring

      • profile image

        LesW 

        15 months ago

        Very informative, easy to read. Thanks

      • LaurenLL profile image

        LaurenLL 

        7 years ago

        Grr.. I hate that thing. Great hub.

      • Clara Ghomes profile image

        Clara Ghomes 

        8 years ago

        hi, mozziemad

        I like your article it is very informative.....:)

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