The buzz on the North Country's winged biters and stingers
by Bibi Wein
I’VE ALWAYS TAKEN a laissez-faire attitude toward insects that know their place: outdoors. I adopted this stance in my teens, when I rarely encountered anything more threatening than a mosquito. And if that mosquito had a choice of two or more humans to bite, I was never her ﬁrst choice. Studies suggest that some people may smell better to mosquitoes than others. That can change with our chemical makeup over time, or even from day to day, and I now smell just as appealing to mosquitoes as anyone else does.
Still, I try to maintain my stoicism, even after 15 summers in an Olmstedville log cabin on one of the cold, fast-running streams where blackﬂies breed and take wing. Mosquitoes are fond of this place too, especially in the evening, and once I leave the lawn and garden for a walk on our dirt road, the deerﬂies pounce. Less predictable are the biting midges—those ﬂying specks we call no-see-ums, punkies or all-jaws. Each summer, there’s at least one evening when reading in bed is out of the question. Even with no body parts but eyes, nose and hands—one hand, if my book is small—exposed beyond my blanket, I soon give up and kill the light—after which my tiny tormenters vanish into the darkness.
Many people miss out on the pleasures of the North Country because of an understandable distaste for attacks by biting arthropods, big and small, and some have no tolerance for anything that buzzes, whether or not it bites or stings. My ﬁrst husband was one of them. This six-foot-two guy cowered in fear of any ﬂying creature smaller than a hummingbird. I must admit I took some pride in scorning his phobia—partly because I was afraid of many things that didn’t scare him, but more important, if our small daughter was to grow up feeling comfortable in the woods, she needed a role model. Clearly that would be me.
When rumors of Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever surfaced in our eastern Long Island neighborhood, I’d already had years of experience extracting ticks from the ﬂesh of animals and humans and, ignoring all warnings, I’d walk anywhere my feet could ﬁnd solid ground, even in brush higher than my head. I brought this risky habit with me to the Adirondacks and kept it up with no harm to show for it except a few seasonal red welts from blackﬂies—until last spring, when I got Lyme disease.
In the Adirondacks? I will never know for sure. Never seen a tick in the Adirondacks? Neither have I. But the deer tick, Ixodes scapularis, is here, and so is the spirochete-shape bacteria, Borrelia bergdorferi, it can transmit from mice (not deer) to us. Lyme disease has been conﬁrmed in every county in the state, and the numbers are growing—and creeping north. Saratoga County saw 69 conﬁrmed cases in 2005, 81 in 2006. Washington County cases leapt from 22 to 56. Further west and north, the numbers are mostly in the single digits—so far. Ticks are more likely to hang out in a grassy area than on a rocky High Peaks trail, but the best defense against a tick bite is to make a head-to-toe tick check as routine as brushing your teeth whenever you’re out between last and ﬁrst frost. But a tick is an arachnid, and this is a story about insects, speciﬁcally ﬂying stingers and biters.
Even though a creature no bigger than a sesame seed put me out of commission for nearly a year, I remain fascinated by bugs and the vast, socially and biologically complex universe they inhabit—a world that is, to us, mostly invisible.
A few things to consider about this tiny universe, some of which are self-evident but worth bearing in mind: The most obvious is that there are a lot of them—way too many to eradicate, even if that were prudent or possible. For every insect you see there are thousands you don’t—hiding in plants, under rocks, in cracks and crevices, anywhere you’d think to look and many places you wouldn’t.
Every species performs ecologically valuable tasks. Without insects, the web of life would unravel. Nectar-sipping yellowjackets, bumblebees and honeybees are vital pollinators that keep the plant world going. And each bug that bugs us is a vital part of the food chain. Flying insects are dinner for a variety of creatures, from dragonﬂies to bears: no ﬂies, no ﬂycatchers. Paper wasps dine on leaf-chewing caterpillars. And yellowjackets and other wasps eat many of the smaller insects that can decimate a garden. Some people think that blackﬂy larvae ﬁlter debris from moving water and help keep Adirondack streams healthy and clean, but this belief is not supported by scientiﬁc study. The larvae might be important to stream ecosystems and the diet of brook trout, though a study of BTI use in one stream found that trout did just as well without them.
Insects are survivors. Blackﬂies, for example, have been around in nearly unchanged form since the Jurassic age—at least 180 million years, eons longer than mammals or ﬂowering plants.
To biting insects—among them, ﬂies, mosquitoes and midges—we are prey. The females need a blood meal for their eggs. Insects that sting, on the other hand, such as bees, wasps and yellowjackets, usually do so in defense of their nests or their lives. Though we may regard them as interlopers in our paradise, it is we who are disturbing theirs.
In the larger scope of things, we should all be grateful to the blackﬂies and the deerﬂies and their cousins and wish them well in insect afterlife as we swat. I’m probably not the ﬁrst to point out that without this wealth of homonoxious arthropods, the Adirondacks truly would be paradise. But then the Northway would become a 100-mile-long parking lot each summer weekend, just like the Long Island Expressway. Population growth would be explosive, and the fragile web of life as we know it in the North Country would be no more.
All the species of bees and wasps that make trouble in the Adirondacks are social insects. This doesn’t mean they date, have dinner parties or yammer on cell phones—though some do love a picnic. Everything social insects do is directed toward beneﬁting or protecting the community, and each individual plays a speciﬁc role. That includes stinging and sometimes chasing humans who disturb the colony’s nest or even get too close to it.
Most encounters with stingers occur in one of two situations: we meet individual workers who are out foraging for food, water or building materials, or we disturb a colony. The latter is much more dangerous.
Among wasps, there are eight species of yellowjackets in the Adirondacks, and all but one of these are very aggressive nest-defenders. They have a lot at stake: A big nest could house half a pound of yellowjackets—about 1,000 individuals. Most yellowjacket nests are subterranean but close to the surface—among the most difﬁcult insect nests to spot and avoid. These slender yellow-and-black wasps also nest in railroad ties, cavities in walls or trees, and other above-ground locations in nests similar to those of hornets. They also enjoy the same kind of foods we do—especially sweets and meats—so much that some call them “picnic wasps.” Yellowjackets are most abundant in late summer and early fall, and they will chase you. Being stung causes temporary distress for most people. The stinger isn’t barbed as a bee’s stinger is, and it doesn’t remain inside the ﬂesh, but it can be very painful. Treat stings with ice to relieve swelling, and a topical and/or oral antihistamine, such as Benedryl.
Polistine wasps, or paper wasps, are not very aggressive and their colonies are small. “They’re bumbling things, reluctant to leave the nest, and you can get pretty close to them without being stung,” says Timothy McCabe, curator of entomology at the New York State Museum, in Albany. However, because they often nest near and in buildings—in structural cracks and crevices, for example—they’re a common source of stings. Each nest consists of a single, uncovered paper comb.
Hornets are the Adirondacks’ largest wasps. They may be dark brown or have white or yellow markings on face and body. (The bald-faced hornet and white-faced hornet are the same creature: Dolichovespula maculata.) “The worst of the bunch,” says McCabe. “The same individual can sting repeatedly.” But because it’s an aerial nester, the hornet is usually easy to avoid. Some nests are about head height, but on average they’re at least 15 feet above ground. And just because the hornet family sees you down there, they’re not likely to ﬂy down and sting. Nests are football-shape and frequently hang from tree branches.
Wild honeybees (Apis mellifera) may be aggressive or benign if you stumble into a nest, depending on subtleties of genetics as well as the colony’s age, size and history of disturbance. Stinging is suicide for the honeybee; the barbs in her stinger and the elasticity of human skin prevent her from pulling the stinger out without pulling the venom sac out of her own body. She won’t attack unless she perceives a serious threat.
Bumblebees (Bombus spp.) are big, hairy black-and-yellow bees that collect pollen on their hind legs to bring back to the hive. They’re normally docile when foraging around ﬂowers but can become aggressive if their nest is threatened. Typical nest sites are in or near the ground: a dark cavity ﬁlled with ﬁne plant ﬁber, such as a burrow beneath an old tree stump or woodpile, or an abandoned rodent tunnel. The bumblebee’s sting is not barbed like that of the honeybee, so it can attack more than once. Some say its sting is less painful than that of the wasp or honeybee, but for allergic humans the bumblebee’s venom is equally dangerous.
Allergic reactions to insect stings can be life-threatening, and everyone who spends time outdoors should know how to recognize and handle a dangerous response, even if you have no history of allergies. The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology provides all you need to know at www.aaaai.org.
Regarding bees: “If you don’t want to get stung by one, don’t look or smell like a ﬂower.” This oft-quoted advice is dead wrong. Bees don’t mistake us for ﬂowers, even when we smell ﬂowery or make colorful wardrobe choices. They recognize ﬂowers by multiple visual and olfactory cues, including ultraviolet patterns invisible to us. They have little sensitivity to the color orange and can’t see red at all. The Adirondacks has one species of honeybee, Apis mellifera, and bumblebees of the genera Bombus. There are no “Africanized” or killer bees in the North Country.
To avoid stings:
Bees and wasps are attracted to dark colors, so white or light-colored clothing may offer some protection. But preventing stings depends on staying aware of where you are and what’s buzzing around you. Foragers usually don’t sting unless ﬁrmly touched; avoid stepping on, smashing or swallowing one. Because honeybees and wasps are drawn to ripe fruit and sweet drinks and foods, the risk of getting stung is greatest where humans have congregated to feed and large numbers of bees and wasps decide to do the same.
Risky behavior: drinking directly out of cans or bottles, going barefoot, leaving food uncovered. Contrary to some advertising claims, there’s no product on the market that repels foraging bees or wasps.
Disturbing vegetation around a nest may arouse mass ire. If insects begin to swarm, walk slowly away, covering your face with both hands. Avoid sudden movements. But if you are being stung, run for indoor shelter.
To treat stings:
For allergic individuals, a single sting can cause a serious reaction. Carry an EpiPen at all times, know how to use it, and remember: it’s only first aid. Anyone who needs to use an EpiPen needs prompt medical attention as well. So does anyone unlucky enough to endure multiple stings. True, beekeepers are stung frequently without ill effects, but they have presumably built up an immunity to bee venom.
They ﬁnd us by sight and by smell: the carbon-dioxide we give off. “It’s our exhaust,” says entomologist Timothy McCabe. “As we pull in more oxygen, we expel more CO2,” explains Daniel Molloy, director of the New York State Museum’s Field Research Laboratory, in Cambridge. So whatever activity makes you huff and puff makes you a mark for arthropod harassment. By females only. They need blood protein to produce a new generation. Fortunately for us, the males of most biting species are vegetarians.
We’re most attractive to hungry biters when wearing dark clothing—they see it in infrared—or breathing heavily.
Blackflies are Simuliidae, which means “snub-nosed little beings.” Primarily three of the 50 species buzzing around the Adirondacks bite humans: Simulium venustum, Prosimulium mixtum and Stegopterna mutata. They breed in cold, swiftly ﬂowing water. Temperature is a major factor in triggering the ﬁrst ﬂight of the season. The warmer the spring weather, the earlier they’re likely to appear. The ﬁrst crop tends to be the largest, but some blackﬂies can turn up almost anywhere in the North Country throughout the summer. Not good for us, but good for their many predators. Birds, bats, spiders, ﬁsh, dragonﬂies and other insects probably supplement their diets with blackﬂies.
“If you’re dark-skinned, blond-haired, wear dark clothes and eat lots of bananas, you’ve done everything you can to make a blackﬂy happy,” says McCabe, the state museum entomologist. The bananas apparently add a yummy aroma to ordinary CO2.
Blackﬂies are so small it would take a couple of them to cover the head of a safety match. But their serrated mandibles are uniquely adapted to cutting through skin. They overlap like scissor blades, and snip rather than pierce, which, aided by the anticoagulants they release, makes for a more generous blood meal than mere piercing would. Their bites usually don’t hurt when they’re inﬂicted but may eventually swell, burn and itch from the alien proteins in blackﬂy saliva. Those of us who are most sensitive to those proteins may become feverish and experience stiff neck and considerable swelling, especially with multiple bites around the face. “I’ve seen some phenomenal responses like this,” says medical entomologist Dennis White, of the New York State Department of Health. “It’s basically a skin reaction—no respiratory problems, as with bee stings—but it’s very dramatic.”
Obviously, those who’ve experienced this kind of response will want to avoid future attacks. To this end, people have devised bug dopes that include kerosene, pine tar, pork fat, pennyroyal, oil of cloves, castor oil and a host of modern chemicals—often to little effect. The only sureﬁre deterrent: spend daytime hours indoors during peak season. Unlike many other ﬂying biters, backﬂies won’t attack in an enclosed space, even in a car or a tent. And they don’t bite after dark.
Biting midges—aka gnats, punkies, no-see-ums, all-jaws, midgets—almost too small to see, hatch each summer in species too numerous to mention and numbers too great to count. (One entomologist working in the Adirondacks in the late-1960s estimated that no fewer than 300 had landed on one forearm within a two-minute period.) Midges (Culicoides) enjoy drier conditions than many other biters. Some species breed among layers of dead leaves (dry on top, moist underneath), especially beech leaves on well-drained slopes in the lee of fallen logs or boulders. Punkies (from the Lenape tribe’s word ponk, meaning ash, dust, powder) usually keep a low proﬁle until 4 or 5 p.m., after which they may persist past dawn. Powerfully drawn to artiﬁcial light, they’re undeterred by most screens. Their bite hurts, but after-effects are rare.
“They’re very localized,” says McCabe. “Sometimes you can escape by moving as little as 50 or 100 feet.” And they do dislike a breeze. Indoors, electric fans may help. Bedtime readers are advised to try a yellow lightbulb. Like most insects, punkies see best at the blue end of the spectrum.
Deerflies, or Chrysops vittatus, are one of the most common of at least three dozen Adirondack species of ﬂies in the family Tabanidae. Some prefer our ankles, some our midsections, others our heads. You can’t run (they’ve been clocked at 80 miles per hour), and you can’t hide (they’re extremely visually oriented—the female’s head is little more than one big eyeball). “They’ll ﬁnd you no matter how cryptic your colors,” says McCabe. “If you’re outdoors, you can’t avoid them. Unless maybe you don’t breathe, don’t sweat, don’t move.” Unlike blackﬂies and mosquitoes, “They are very attracted to moving objects,” says Molloy. “CO2 may be less important to them.”
A deerﬂy’s main interest is mammal blood, and we’re an exotic, tasty species for her. The hole she pierces into our ﬂesh is big enough to produce enough blood for her to lap up. There’s no known harm in the bites, but if they feel itchy or sore, one of the many drugstore remedies may soothe them. Repellents don’t bother deerﬂies enough to keep them from buzzing incessantly around your head and following you for miles—though DEET may make them a little less likely to bite. The deerﬂy’s charming habit of zooming around the head in tight circles and tangling in the roots of your hair is somewhat less annoying if you wear a broad-brimmed hat—though they may just hang out on the brim. Some folks ﬁnd the buzz worse than the bite.
So many mosquito species breed in the Adirondacks, you may encounter one just about anywhere, anytime, from early May until after ﬁrst frost. They do, however, observe a quiet hour: few bite during the hottest, brightest times—an hour or so around noon.
All mosquitoes breed in still water, and they don’t need much more than an empty soup can for prodigious reproduction. Their biting process is similar to a miniature hypodermic needle drawing blood.
Aedes, which hatch in pools formed by melting snow, are the ﬁrst to appear in spring. Particularly sensitive to dry conditions, they hang out in moist woods but are quick to ﬂy into the open on calm, overcast, humid days. Aedes vexans are late-summer biters, and a new crop appears after every good rainfall. They’re known for sneak attacks on humans who are sitting still. But they’ll avoid ﬂying into your house. Culex pipiens are “particularly nasty with people,” says McCabe. They dine at dusk and after dark, are most abundant in the warmest part of the summer and will readily ﬂy indoors for a blood meal.
There are several theories about why mosquitoes and other nocturnal insects are so attracted to electric light. One hypothesis: when light shines through dewdrops or the equivalent, it forms a prism that pulsates infrared at the same frequency as the female of the species, driving the males into a sexual frenzy. Contrary to popular belief, mosquitoes are not found in peak numbers in swamps and marshy areas. The majority of human-biting mosquitoes prefer to breed in April and May snowmelt pools in wooded areas, where there is organic matter, such as decaying leaves.
A thick application of almost anything oily (for example, mineral oil) will discourage mosquitoes from biting, at least for a while. This may account for the fact that some skin-care products seem to repel them. It may have been the greasy stuff that did the trick in smelly old-time bug dopes, rather than the more pungent ingredients. Property owners can help keep the mosquito population down by eliminating breeding sites: dry out anything that can hold water, including old tires, clogged gutters and birdbaths.
To avoid bites:
Wear white or very light-colored clothing—as much of it as you can tolerate. Insect repellents work better against some species than others. Those containing DEET are best. “A product with three- or four-percent active ingredients works just as well as one with 95-percent, is less toxic and won’t melt the plastic on your watch,” advises Timothy McCabe, curator of entomology at the New York State Museum.
Dennis White, director of the arthropod–borne disease program at the New York State Department of Health, says concentrations of up to 30-percent DEET are safe, adding, “There’s no reason to use more.”
According to a small informal survey, those who study biting insects protect themselves in the ﬁeld by using no repellents ever or donning full anti-bee regalia. The middle ground: blackﬂy researcher Daniel Molloy says he uses repellents “occasionally” but only on clothing, not on his skin.
What doesn’t work:
Bug zappers that attract and electrocute insects. They draw more insects into the area, attract many more harmless males than biting females and kill more moths than anything else.
NATURAL FIRST-AID FOR BITES AND STINGS*
From the woods, lawn or garden:
Sphagnum or peat moss: Found in bogs and moist woods. Most insect bites or stings that occur in the Adirondacks don’t require an antiseptic, but if you need or want one, just pick up a clump of sphagnum and plop it on. This soothing compress contains germ-ﬁghting iodine.
Common plantain (Plantago major): Lawns, disturbed areas, roadsides. Wash the leaves, chew or chop with a little water to mash into a poultice, then bind to the wound. Antimicrobial, stimulates healing. Leaves of burdock or, in mid-to-late summer, mustard past its prime can be used in the same way. But chop, don’t chew.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): Fields, roadsides. Crush fresh young leaves and mix with water to make a poultice. Applied to wasp stings, should relieve pain and swelling within an hour.
Jewelweed (Impatiens pallida, Impatiens capensis): A long-stemmed plant with small flowers in pale yellow or spotty orange. Plentiful in wet places with some shade. Crush leaves and stems and apply directly to bites or stings. The fresher the wound, the better it works. Antihistamine and anti-inflammatory properties.
Labrador tea (Ledum groenlandicum Oeder): Peat-rich soils, bogs, shores of lakes and ponds. This small, up to three-foot-tall shrub has fragrant, oblong leaves about two inches long. The edges turn under; underside is woolly, white to rust. Make a tea with a handful of leaves by soaking them in eight ounces of hot water or simmering for 10–15 minutes. Cool and apply the tea to stings.
From the pantry:
Baking soda: Moisten enough to make a paste; apply to bite or sting. For multiple bites, sponge with a weak solution of baking soda and water to relieve itching and swelling. Repeat as needed.
Vinegar: Use as a wash or mix with baking soda for a poultice. Some say this combo provides instant pain relief and also reduces later inflammation.
Witch hazel: This astringent may help in removing any stingers that remain in the body, as well as providing some relief from itching and soreness.
Meat tenderizer: Often contains the enzyme papain (pronounced papayan, from the leaves of the papaya plant). Harmless, and may provide relief when moistened and applied to painful stings.
Sources: John Richard Stepp, University of Florida anthropology professor; Journal of Ethno-Pharmacology, June 2004
*No home remedy is appropriate for anyone experiencing swelling or wheezing after a bite or sting. If you have these common symptoms of allergic reaction, see a doctor, pronto.