Sunday, July 16, 2017

Biting Midges: Part of Life in the Adirondacks

A screened-in porch is an ideal place to relax on a summer evening in the Adirondacks. The tight, wire mesh that covers the walls allows the enjoyment of nature’s unique fragrances and wildlife sounds without the harassment of mosquitoes and other flying nocturnal pests. However, during the early parts of summer, there is one bug that can detract from the backwoods ambiance of that peaceful Adirondack evening. Biting midges are small enough to pass through traditional screens, allowing them access to any individual wanting to enjoy the evening.

The biting midges form a large group of exceedingly small true flies that are roughly the size of a sand grain, and are known to many as punkies or no-see-ums. The latter common name comes from this bug’s ability to remain unseen in low light conditions, such as on a porch after sunset, even when one of these pests has started to chew into your skin. Despite their dark color, no-see-ums are still a challenge to see clearly, even when standing against a patch of light colored skin. On a person with a dark complexion, punkies can be impossible to spot, regardless of how good the light may happen to be.

It is evident when a female biting midge has landed on your arm, leg, neck or face, as this insect is capable of producing a very noticeable bite. Her mandibles are equipped with exceedingly sharp teeth that can slice into the flesh of most creatures, and are capable of expanding to allow her to clamp onto a piece of flesh sizeable enough to encounter a surface capillary. Once the individual locates a source of blood, it begins to suck this fluid into its mouth with a straw-like appendage.

Because of their small size, biting midges produce no more than a pinch when they initially cut into a person’s skin. However, the chemicals contained in their saliva react with the surface cells of that area of the body and can inflame them and further aggravate an individual wanting an evening of total relaxation. Some people are known to experience an allergic reaction when a no-see-um bites similar to the adverse reactions an individual may experience when bitten by a black fly or mosquito.

As is the case with other biting flies, only the female requires a meal rich in proteins, as these nutrients are needed to promote the development of the eggs within her reproductive system. While some species of punkies target a specific form of wildlife, others are known to attack any creature they happen to detect when in need of a protein meal. Blood from a mammal or bird is the item that most species of no-see-ums prefer, yet there are a few types of biting midges that rely on blood from amphibians, and some even utilize body fluids from large insects.

A female may lay several batches of eggs during the few weeks of the adult stage of her life cycle. Even though she may extract blood from an individual that contains disease, the species of no-see-ums that exist in northern regions are not responsible for disease transmission. First, the amount of contaminated blood that is ingested is just too minute. Second, her stomach typically digests pathogens along with the blood; and last, the length of time that passes before she makes contact with a second host prevents disease causing microbes from remaining viable inside a no-see-um’s body.

Different species place their eggs in different settings. Some laying them in a shallow pool of water along a quiet stretch of marsh, while a few species simply deposit them in a patch of extremely moist soil that contains a rich source of nutrients. After she lays her eggs, the female, like the male, relies primarily on flower nectar for meeting her own energy needs. On occasions, sap is also extracted to satisfy an adult’s appetite.

The microscopic larvae feed on a variety of complex organic molecules around them, along with various microorganisms. Larvae that develop during the middle to end of summer are genetically programmed to enter into a dormant state in which they pass the winter. In the late spring, when conditions become favorable, they continue their development and transition into pupa. The adult emerges a short time later, and within a week, the female is looking for a meal of protein for her eggs.

Illustration: Biting Midge lifecycle.

A version of this story first appeared on the Adirondack Almanack in 2012.

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Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.

5 Responses

  1. Tim says:

    They appear drawn to light. Is that right? We seem to get them when we leave the bedroom light off.

  2. Tim says:

    I meant “not get them” when the light is off.

  3. Richard Carlson says:

    They used to be so bad here (North River) that they would literally coat the walls at night – and of course bite me. They came in right through the screens. I eventually had to net over the screens to keep them out. That was 5 or more years ago – still some around but not like that. Climate Change?

  4. Doug Zacker says:

    Hi Tom,

    This is a bit off topic, but since you look like you’re well versed in bugs of the ADKs I thought I’d ask a question. Do you have any idea what the real name is for a bug that’s referred to by some in the ADKs as a Timberbeast? I got stung by something huge on Saturday while biking at Gore Mtn. I told the story to long time ADK native who said it sounds like it was a Timberbeast; however, I can find no reference online to a bug that goes by that scary name.
    All I know is that it was big, mostly black and swooped down and simultaneously landed on my knee and bit me at the same time. I got it off and it flew away. Any ideas?
    Thanks so much,
    Doug Zacker
    Indian Lake

  5. Tom Kalinowski says:

    Hi Doug,
    From your description of the bug as being large, nearly black, and capable of inflicting a painful bite, I am inclined to suggest that you had an encounter with a Giant Water Bug. (Lethocerus americanus) This nasty looking aquatic creature is about 2 inches in length and has exceptionally sharp mouth features that enables it to pierce the skin of most animals. The giant water bug spends the summer in shallow ponds and marshes where it preys on a wide variety of small animals, like salamanders, frogs and fish. The young that hatch in early July, and develop throughout the summer mature into adults by late August and are now looking to find a body of water to claim as their own. Yet rather than simply swim to another section of the pond, or marsh, these young adults emerge from the surface and utilize their wings. Giant water bugs fly mainly at night in their search for a body of water, and occasionally become exhausted in their journey, and eventually land to rest. They then continue the next day after regaining their strength. I have encountered giant water bugs on the lawn, or alongside hiking trails during late summer, and also during the late spring when they may also be searching for a spot to summer after spending the winter in a much deeper aquatic setting. Don’t ever pick one of these guys up, as they can inflict a very painful bite.
    Try finding a picture of a giant water bug and see if it looks like the creature you encountered at Gore Mt. Good luck! Tom

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