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Living Sanibel: No-see-ums

By Staff | Apr 26, 2017

Adult no-see-um. PHOTO PROVIDED

There are more than 4,000 species of biting midges worldwide. In Florida alone, there are 47 different species. Since their behavior, size and feeding habits are very similar, knowing exactly which species is taking a bite out of you is all but impossible. No-see-ums are the smallest blood-sucking insects on earth and, like the mosquito, only the females bite. They require the proteins from blood to make their eggs.

While the amount of blood no-see-ums take is insignificant, many people have an allergic reaction to the anti-coagulant these insects inject into their victim to prevent the blood from clotting and gumming up their microscopic beaks. It’s the reaction to these chemicals that causes the itchy, painful welts that can last for days. Over a prolonged period of time, which varies among individuals, the body’s immune system builds up a tolerance to these bites and the welts stop forming. Knowing this offers little comfort to a visitor who is staying on the islands for a week or less.

Because their life span is so short and their habitat so varied, Lee County Mosquito Control is unable to offer any kind of island-wide control for biting midges. Controlling no-see-ums on a county-wide scale would result in almost daily spraying and the environmental harm that resulted would far outweigh the benefits.

There are several preventative measures to avoid getting bit in the first place. The first is to wear long sleeves, long pants, gloves, shoes and socks. Beside the fact that when you stroll along the beaches of Sanibel and Captiva you would look like an idiot, the no-see-ums would elect to go for your exposed face. The chemical DEET, which is also effective for mosquitoes, in a concentration of at least 30 percent, seems to help. Another local preventative is applying the beauty product, Skin So Soft (or any baby oil), which effectively traps the no-see-um in the oil, thereby preventing the tiny midge from being able to bite in the first place. Whatever you decide, be very careful not to use sun screen and DEET together as it both increases the absorption of the DEET into the person’s bloodstream (which isn’t good!) and breaks down the protective ingredients in sun screen, rendering it ineffective.

For people who want to avoid the use of chemicals, the CDC (Center for Disease Control) also recommends the use of oil of lemon eucalyptus, which is almost as effective as DEET. Consumer Reports recommends a product called Repel Lemon Eucalyptus, which does contain a minute amount of biochemical pesticide but is far less toxic than DEET. Another effective and less toxic remedy is cactus juice. Available an many retailers it seems to deter the little flying teeth from landing on you. Another one of the simplest, and easiest ways to prevent getting bit by no-see-ums is wind. A ceiling fan, small house fan or an afternoon breeze will suffice to keep down the no-see-ums since they are so tiny that almost any breeze, natural or otherwise, keeps them from getting aloft.

Once bitten, the remedies for dealing with the ensuing welts are all over the map. One suggested remedy is to take a cotton q-tip, dip it in boiling water and apply it to the welt as soon as possible. In this case the cure might well be worse than the bite! Other remedies include various patches, sprays and gels including ibuprofen gel, hydrocortisone cream and xylocaine gel.

Luckily there are many other insects that feed on the tiny no-see-ums and their larvae and, although troublesome, the local no-see-ums do not carry some of the diseases found in flying midges in other tropical regions, including a serious skin infection called leishmaniasis.

This is an excerpt from Living Sanibel – A Nature Guide to Sanibel & Captiva Islands by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.