Science of the Seasons: No-see-um, but you sure feel them

By David Wartinbee, for the Redoubt Reporter

We have all heard the adage, “Be careful what you wish for, it just might come true.”  Those of us who spend lots of time along streams, whether fishing, dipnetting, hiking or collecting bugs, often wish for a clear, warm day without a hint of wind. We relish those beautiful days in the summer, and so do the Ceratopogonidae.

I know you’ve never heard this name before, and probably don’t even know who or what it is. If you think back to one of those warm summer days along the river when there wasn’t even a breath of breeze and there was something biting you around the hairline, on your hand or on your wrist. Worst of all, you probably swatted at it but never saw what it was. The unseen culprit was a very small Dipteran fly in the family Ceratopogonidae. Because we can’t see them as they bite us, we call them no-see-ums. In other parts of the country, they call them punkies or biting sand flies.

These tiny adult flies are no longer that the (–) two dashes between the parentheses. That’s why you never felt them land and probably couldn’t see them, either.

The common name, no-see-um, certainly is appropriate. The tiny size makes them vulnerable to wind, so on breezy days, you most likely aren’t bothered by them. When they do bite, it always seems to be in a particularly tender area. Because of their diminutive size, they need to bite where the skin is thinnest and, of course, most sensitive.

The town of Punxsutawney, Pa., home of the Feb. 2 weather-prognosticating groundhog, is actually named for these punkies. Delaware Indian tribal lore describes an evil sorcerer who, after being killed, was transformed into the biting flies that are very common in central Pennsylvania. That locality has many slow-moving streams, rivers and swampy areas that are ideal habitats for Ceratopogonidae larvae. The area was then known by the Native tribes as the land of the punkies.

No-see-um larvae are found in a wide variety of aquatic or moist habitats. They usually feed on fine, organic debris in marsh, swamp, stream, pond or even estuary areas. The aquatic larvae are long, slender and almost needlelike creatures. I have always been surprised to find the larvae are many times longer than the resulting adults.

The life cycle often takes a full year and most of the time is spent in the larval form. After a short period as a pupa, the adult emerges and becomes an aerial adult.

Immediately upon emergence from the pupa form, the tiny insects start looking for sustenance. While some species feed upon flower-produced nectar, those probably aren’t of great interest to humans. When they start feeding on us we give them our full attention.

Adult Ceratopogonidae appear in our area most commonly in June and July, but on a calm day in August they might still find you. Only the females take a blood meal. Interestingly, some species take their blood meal from amphibians, reptiles, birds and even other insects. The thought of a mosquito being bitten by another small, irritating insect appeals to my sense of fair play.

In some areas of the world, adults apparently can transmit a variety of parasitic and viral diseases. They are most problematic for farm animals in tropical areas, but no disease transmission is known in our area. Around here, they are simply an irritation when they take their tiny blood meal from a very tender part of our skin.

David Wartinbee, Ph.D, J.D., is a biology professor at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus. He is writing a series of columns on the ecology of the Kenai River and Cook Inlet watershed.

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2 Comments

Filed under ecology, insects, science of the seasons

2 responses to “Science of the Seasons: No-see-um, but you sure feel them

  1. I just read this article regarding the no-see-um. I had an infestation in my apartment approximately 8 weeks ago and am having to deal with tiny brown pupae that have a horrible bite. I and my 10-month old granddaughter, who lives with me, have larvae that are in our ears and our noses. I have a sample of one that came out of my ear. My granddaughter, as her nose is so small for me to get them out, have them come out and bite her nose, upper lip and all around her nose. I have tried to terminate these larvae by placing a peroxide & water mixture in our ears and noses, but they are still surviving. Also my granddaughter has had some come from her eyes. I have grainy material (sometimes white, sometimes black) coming from my eyes.

    I thought you might be interested in the no-see-um developing in humans. I have been bitten many times when they flew around, but I think the adults are dead (hopefully) at this time, but still have tiny black dots that seem to develop out of no where all around in the apartment and other areas on my body, which bite me. Please let me know if this interests you as I will be taking my specimens to the UT Entomology Dept soon and my granddaughter and I will be seeing dermatologists soon.

  2. Sandy Werner

    Did you ever get rid of thm? How? The entemologists at the university say they havent found an insecticide tthat works on them.

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