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Sex on the Wing

Mosquitoes, Punkies, Blackflies, and You

By Tamia Nelson

May 15, 2001

"I t's all 'appening in nature, isn't it?" That's how Miss Brahms, the ever-so-genteel shop-assistant in the British comedy series Are You Being Served?, summed up her first glimpse of life in the raw in an English farmyard. She didn't do a bad job of it, either. Miss Brahms may have been newly arrived from London, and innocent in country matters, but she was a keen observer nonetheless. Sex is the thing that makes the natural world go round.

Which brings me to the intimate connection between biting flies—in particular, the unholy trinity of mosquitoes, ceratopogonid midges ("no-see-ums"), and blackflies—and humans. Few of us really enjoy playing host to blood-sucking insects, of course, but whatever our feelings about the matter, it's important to understand that biting flies aren't driven to tap our veins by blood-lust alone, or even by hunger. They're goaded by a much more powerful drive. The same elemental force that drew Miss Brahms' discerning eye. Sex.

Here's how it works. Adult male mosquitoes and blackflies are vegetarians, as are many male midges. If they eat anything at all, it's likely to be nectar or plant juices. But their female counterparts aren't so easily satisfied. They pursue "blood meals" with a single-minded determination, leaving no doubt that the meal is more than just a snack. And so it is. Blood is critical to the proper development of their eggs. No blood meal, no eggs. And without eggs, there won't be future generations of blackflies, midges, or mosquitoes. So it's a matter of life and death—not for the individuals alone, but for entire species.

In the next few weeks, this frantic imperative will be brought home with special force, as hordes of paddlers take to northern lakes and rivers in search of respite and recreation. While all but a few city-dwellers and suburbanites will have encountered mosquitoes before, many folks new to backcountry waterways will be meeting blackflies and biting midges for the first time. To most, it's going to be a memorable encounter. When met unexpectedly amidst the shadows of the darkling woods, even the familiar mosquito assumes a new and threatening aspect.

There's nothing mysterious about this. We humans simply don't like seeing ourselves as prey. Mosquitoes, of course, look at things differently. They pursue us with stealth and guile. Shunning sunlight and strong winds, mosquitoes are creatures of the night. On those occasions when they are active by day, they seek out shady, humid woodlands. They hunt by scent, tasting the air constantly for pheromones (sex, again!) and carbon dioxide, and then following any newly-discovered odor-trail up the concentration gradient to its source. They're ideal hunters, too: patient, relentless, and implacable. If you're their chosen target, you'll soon learn how things stand. You can run from them, to be sure, but try as you might, you can't hide.

Once you've actually been run to ground, however, your winged pursuers will change tactics. More often than not, they'll become circumspect, executing repeated "touch and goes" on any exposed skin, hovering and landing tentatively—all this to the accompaniment of a constant, unsettling whine. Even after they start feeding, mosquitoes remain alert to danger. Until they're well stuck in, they'll leave their meal at the slightest disturbance. They don't give up, though, and their persistence sees them through most setbacks and difficulties. If chased away, they always return to try their luck again. Theirs is the selfless courage of the true believer. Their motto? "Victory or death!"

To improve the odds, they never attack alone. In the pine and spruce forests of the North Woods, mosquitoes appear in squads and companies. Paddlers accustomed only to the infrequent, solitary tormentors encountered during suburban barbecues will find it bad enough when they have a few dozen flying blood-suckers buzzing endlessly about their heads. But far worse is in store for them if they head further north. On the sodden tundra of the so-called Barren Lands, mosquitoes muster in deadly earnest. Here there are few trees, no shade, and (nearly) no night. No matter. Barren Land mosquitoes are a breed apart, and theirs is a numberless horde. It's not unusual for a single random swat to crush several hundred attackers, all to no avail. Ten times that number of keen replacements will immediately rush in to fill the gap.

And the siege continues round the clock. On first arising in the morning, you'll find every square inch of every tent in your party pulsating with winged anticipation. No rock star ever had such an eager audience. Tens of thousands—no, hundreds of thousands—of individuals, each hungry to make your closer acquaintance. This constant, unremitting assault goads caribou into maddened, killing gallops to nowhere, and drives strong-minded men to weep. At the same time, however, the clouds of mosquitoes themselves support a rich tapestry of bird life. It's a timely reminder that even today man is not necessarily the measure of all things.

Biting midges have an altogether different style. Like mosquitoes, they're most active during the evening and night, and on overcast days, but that's where the comparison ends. Midges are the ultimate stealth warriors. So small as to be almost invisible (hence "no-see-um"), they usually remain undetected until the moment when they bite. That's all the introduction you'll need, however. Imagine a tiny, white-hot cinder placed against your skin. Better yet—since midges, like mosquitoes, usually attack in force—imagine dozens of white-hot cinders. Now you've got the idea. In fact, biting midges are also known as "punkies," from an Algonquin word for "living ash" or "coal." Punkies drift through ordinary mosquito netting unhindered, entering tents like clouds of tormenting fire, only to drift out again minutes later, leaving their victims no remedy but to scratch and curse their fate.

Happily, biting midges come and go quickly. While mosquitoes are active from ice-out to first frost, midge populations usually build to a sharp peak in June and July, falling off rapidly thereafter. And midges, unlike mosquitoes, carry few diseases that threaten human health, at least in temperate climates.

Blackflies (or "black flies," if you prefer) are on stage for an even shorter time. That's a good thing, too. Whichever spelling you favor, these are creatures to be reckoned with. Though small—they're intermediate in size between midges and mosquitoes—and misshapen (to human eyes, at least), blackflies are the berzerkers among biting insects. Disdaining stealth and subterfuge, they attack straight on, by daylight. And they stand their ground. Once they've seized a beachhead on your flesh, only death can compel them to relinquish it.

Not that they lack good tactical sense. Nothing could be further from the truth. After all, in the north temperate zone, their numbers reach breeding levels in only a few weeks in late May and early June. They have to make the most of this one brief opportunity. That's no problem, though. They're masters of the ambush, and they know just when you're most vulnerable. On the portage trail, for example, with 85 pounds of canoe delicately balanced on your shoulders and a Duluth pack on your back.

Here's the scenario. You struggle to lift your boat and grunt as its weight settles onto your neck. Then you lurch painfully down the trail, watching for roots and mud-holes. Suddenly your vision is obscured by something moving over your glasses. No, it's something moving inside your glasses. Seconds later, you feel sharp mandibles piercing the tender flesh at the inside corner of your eye. What do you do now? Drop the canoe and claw at your face, knowing that hundreds more blackflies are waiting their chance to replace each fallen comrade? Or do you just continue on along the trail, while a thin ribbon of blood streams down across your cheek?

It's your choice. Either way, the blackfly doesn't care. She dines happily at the table you've unwillingly provided, daring you to do your worst. She knows her creed by heart: death before dishonor.

Still, whichever course you adopt—resigned acceptance or futile retaliation—you can take comfort from one thing, at least. You're not likely to get sick. Unless you're one of the unfortunate few who develop life-threatening allergic reactions from blackfly bites, you'll suffer no more than itchy welts in the aftermath of an attack. Not everyone is so lucky. In Africa, Mexico, and Central and South America, whole villages are infected with a blackfly-borne parasitic worm. As many as one in ten of the villagers will become blind as a result. "River blindness," it's called, and for good reason. Unlike mosquitoes and biting midges, blackflies breed only in clean, fast-moving water. In many of the world's tropical regions, the same rivers which nurture life and facilitate travel also shelter agents of insidious, crippling disease. It's one of nature's crueler ironies.

Those of us living in temperate latitudes are more fortunate. Seldom is the bite of midge, mosquito or blackfly followed by anything more serious than transient discomfort, and even this can often be avoided, merely by taking a few sensible precautions—precautions that I'll outline next week. Until then, though, remember this: "It's all 'appening in nature."

To be continued….

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.










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