Wild Ideas: There will be blood

It’s just been a great year for bugs, and a great year to observe and write about them — the good, the bad and the ugly — so I can’t resist doing one more before moving on to other topics.

Every summer since I moved to Rappahannock County, I’ve been plagued with getting bug bites at night inside my house. Some people have suggested the insects were no-see-ums, which are small enough to slip through the standard window screen, but I didn’t think that these flies — also known as midges, punkies and sandflies — were active at night.

Although most species of the tiny no-see-um are plant eaters, some are bloodsuckers, like the North American species Culicoides sonorensis, shown here engorged with blood. They are thought thought to be vectors of disease in livestock. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Although most species of the tiny no-see-um are plant eaters, some are bloodsuckers, like the North American species Culicoides sonorensis, shown here engorged with blood. They are thought thought to be vectors of disease in livestock. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

My only experience with no-see-ums was with the diurnal type, like the ones out west that can drive cattle over cliffs during the day. I personally hadn’t experienced being driven mad at night by a tiny fly until I started living in the Blue Ridge. The piles of tiny black corpses under the lamps every morning should have been a clue.

Most insects, at least in the subtropical region we live in here in the Piedmont and Blue Ridge, do well with the mild, wet weather we’ve been having this summer. Too much rain at critical reproductive and growth stages, particularly when it comes with high winds, can be a problem for some insects, and the cool spring this year certainly delayed emergence and reproduction in particular species. However, many quickly made up for lost time once warmer weather hit.

While having a boom year for some insects that are lovely to behold, such as butterflies, it’s also apparently been a boom year for no-see-ums. At just a 16th of an inch long, they are hard to behold, and they’re not lovely in any way except to an entomologist or another no-see-um.

Likely the ones that are devouring me now are the second generation to be born this year. Their larvae thrive in damp places; some are even aquatic. There are many species of them, but most seem to either like wet, low areas (think beach) or the mountains (think Blue Ridge).

Most no-see-ums are plant eaters, and some even help pollinate tropical plants, including cocoa. However, others, all among the 500 species in the Culicoides genus, are bloodsuckers. Some carry disease to livestock and other animals. Humans seem to just get maddeningly itchy bites.

Adult no-see-ums of both sexes have mouthparts that can slash the skin, causing it to ooze. The flies add enzyme-filled saliva, which further breaks down the proteins in the ooze, which the flies slurp up. Not ones to linger over a meal, they then move on to the next victim.

Although most species of the tiny no-see-um are plant eaters, some are bloodsuckers, like the African species Culicoides imicola, shown here engorged on blood. They are thought to be vectors of disease in livestock. Photo by Alan R. Walker
Although most species of the tiny no-see-um are plant eaters, some are bloodsuckers, like the African species Culicoides imicola, shown here engorged on blood. They are thought to be vectors of disease in livestock. Photo by Alan R. Walker

The enzymes can cause acute itching in any of us unlucky enough to have an allergic response, including me. I’m not only allergic but obviously hugely attractive to these and other vampiric invertebrates, including chiggers, ticks and mosquitoes. I regularly spend at least a week every summer in total misery from itchy bites that cover me from head to toe from one bloodsucker or another.

At night, nocturnal no-see-ums are attracted to lights inside houses, which draw the flies in through the screens. I can’t bring myself to wear long pants and shirts and socks when I’m at home on a hot summer night — or to closing up the house. Other options are installing fine-mesh window screens or applying DEET, a truly nasty insect repellent to which I also have a bad reaction. Or I could just keep the lights off and go to bed at dusk.

Instead I prefer to spend a week or so scratching, applying “AfterBite Xtra” or, as most experts recommend, topical cortisone ointments. The latter usually come with tepid recommendations, such as “might help” or “may reduce itching,” which matches my experience with them. In one online chat thread about no-see-ums someone suggested using “Preparation H with Aloe and Vitamin E” on the bites — not the first time I’ve heard that suggested for itchy bug bites, but I’ve yet to try it.

At least I’ve somehow avoided walking through a nest of chiggers so far this year. The larvae of a mite, chiggers are even smaller than no-see-ums (less than 1/150th of an inch) and inflict their torture in a slightly different way. According to MedicineNet.com, chiggers also use enzymes to break down tissue, but the resulting hardening of the surrounding skin results in the formation of a feeding tube called a stylostome. They then feed on the destroyed tissue and, if not disturbed, may feed through the stylostome for a few days.

Many people mistakenly believe that chiggers, which are red, burrow into the tissue, probably because the exposed flesh is also red. Some victims put nail-polish on bites to “suffocate” the larva thought to be inside. Actually the larva has usually already done its damage and left, and the application of nail polish at best is likely to help in only two ways: keep air from further inflaming the exposed tissue and help protect the damaged area from bacteria-loaded fingernails when the victim inevitably turns to furiously scratching it.

Cooling fall weather is the only real hope. Although I’ve really enjoyed studying and photographing bugs this year (visit nighthawkcommunications.net for a slideshow of invertebrates that I keep updating), at this point fall couldn’t come too soon.

More bad bug news

Stink bug: Anyone who hasn’t bug-proofed their house or other buildings from the brown marmorated stink bug (BMSB) should do it as soon as possible. According to Virginia Cooperative Extension entomologist Chris Bergh, his research team have found that waning daylight hours may trigger the bug’s search for shelter. For the past three years, around Sept. 21, the bugs showed up suddenly en masse on the exteriors of buildings at the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Center in Winchester, seeking a place to overwinter. “There seems to be a very tight window during which these bugs start moving from their feeding sites to overwintering sites,” Bergh said last winter.

Since BMSB disperse and move from one food source to another as they become available, it’s hard to tell how many will be coming back, but on the basis of last year’s fall BMSB boom, entomologists were projecting 2013 as another banner year for the bugs. Then again, two years ago wet weather and storms at the end of the summer seemed to tamp down the population of nymphs, which are more vulnerable to such weather, according to Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute entomologist Jim McNeil. While an active year for hurricanes was predicted, so far they’re a no-show and the stink bugs may get a break. We should know for sure in a few weeks.

For suggestions on bug-proofing buildings, see my Feb. 13 article on them on rappnews.com; for the latest information on BMSB, visit the Northeast IPM Center website at northeastipm.org.

Ash borer:Another insect invader is just making its way into the area but may ultimately spell disaster for native ash trees. According to an Aug. 19 press release from Shenandoah National Park, a single emerald ash borer has been found in a surveillance trap in the Dickey Ridge Picnic Grounds, not far from where one was found in 2012, in Warren County. The level of EAB infestation in this area is not known, but park staff, working with the Virginia Department of Forestry, will soon survey the Dickey Ridge area, the release says.

Despite its small size, the tiny emerald ash borer is wreaking havoc on native ash trees. Photo courtesy of USDA.
Despite its small size, the tiny emerald ash borer is wreaking havoc on native ash trees. Photo courtesy of USDA.

 “If EAB becomes well established in the park, it could lead to large-scale ash mortality and cause impacts similar to what was seen when the park’s eastern hemlock trees were killed by hemlock woolly adelgid,” says Park Superintendent Jim Northup.

EAB was accidentally introduced to North America from Asia and was first discovered in southeast Michigan in 2002. Since its introduction, EAB has spread to 21 states and two Canadian provinces, killing more than 50 million ash trees. The bug is thought to spread primarily through being accidentally transported in nursery plants or firewood, leading to a ban on bringing firewood into Shenandoah (go to nps.gov and search “shenandoah firewood ban”). For more about EAB, visit emeraldashborer.info.

Kudzu bug: Crops as well as native ecosystems in Virginia are already under assault from a growing number of exotic insects, and a new one has joined the list, the Asian kudzu bug (Megacopta cribraria),  also known as the bean plataspid, kudzu beetle, lablab bug or globular stink bug. In the shield bug family, as is BMSB, the kudzu bug feeds on soybeans as well as other legumes. It was first spotted in central Georgia in 2009 and has been spreading outward to other states ever since. In Virginia, it was first reported in southern counties in 2012, but an interactive map at the KudzuBug website (kudzubug.org) now shows reported sightings throughout most of Virginia, including Rappahannock and Culpeper counties. On the upside, as its name implies, it also “appreciably reduces” the growth of kudzu, according to an article in “Southeast Farm Press” (southeastfarmpress.com), as well as targeting other Asian invasive plants.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 284 Articles

Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term “biodiversity,” “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”