Sex on the Wing
Mosquitoes, Punkies, Blackflies, and You
May 15, 2001
"It'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 fliesin
particular, the unholy trinity of mosquitoes, ceratopogonid midges
("no-see-ums"), and blackfliesand 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 deathnot 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 tentativelyall 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 thousandsno, hundreds of thousandsof
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 yetsince midges, like mosquitoes, usually
attack in forceimagine 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
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 smallthey're
intermediate in size between midges and mosquitoesand misshapen (to
human eyes, at least), blackflies are the beserkers 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 adoptresigned acceptance or futile
retaliationyou 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
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 precautionsprecautions that I'll outline next
week. Until then, though, remember this: "It's all 'appening in
To be continued
Copyright © 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights