We all know them. They are a pain in the neck. The little pests that look like teensyweensy flies but bite like dire skeeters. After being terrorized once again you yell:
What on earth are those tiny bugs that bite like mosquitoes!?
What are those tiny flies which bite like mosquitoes and leave your skin covered with red itchy welts that take a week or more to heal? Why, you can’t even see what is attacking you!
These tiny biting bugs have several nick-names:
- (1) no-see-ums,
- (2) sand flies,
- (3) biting midges,
- (4) punkies.
These are a grouping of small flies (just 1-4 mm in size) belonging to the insect family Ceratopogonidae. Over 4,000 species of flies belong to this family.
Figure 1 shows a no-see-um fly on a patch of human skin. Comparison of the fly to the hairs on the skin give a good indication of this fly’s relative size.
Where Can They Be Found?
No-see-ums thrive on every continent of the world with the exception of Antarctica. The natural habitats of no-see-um flies vary by species; however they really thrive in and near marshes and areas where highly organic wet soils exist.
These insects will not establish inside homes or other human habitats, and cannot thrive in a dry environment.
The No-See-Um Lifecycle
Like other flies, no-see-ums have several life stages, including the egg, larval, pupal, and adult stages.
The complete lifecycle of these tiny biting bugs lasts from 2-6 weeks, depending on the species and environmental conditions. Adults live just a few weeks in the wild, and a bit longer if bred in a laboratory.
Female no-see-ums lay their eggs in a most environment, and when they hatch, the larvae are not strictly terrestrial or aquatic (but they cannot live without moisture).
The larval stages live around swamps, along the shores of ponds or streams, and in muddy areas, where they feed on small organisms.
The larvae morph into pupae, and then emerge as adults after the 2-3 day pupal stage.
Once adult flies emerge from the pupal stage, they are ready to mate to perpetuate their life cycle. Mating occurs in flight.
Adults tend to swarm near productive breeding sites, but will disperse for mating or feeding.
Both males and females feed on plant nectar as adults; however, females require a blood meal in order for their eggs to fully develop.
The female no-see-um pierces the skin with a needle-like sucker, and uses a separate injector tube to squirt a small amount of anticoagulant into the bite to keep the blood flowing as it feeds.
The human body sets up an allergic reaction to this anticoagulant, which produces the characteristic red, itchy welt that can linger for days afterward.
No-see-ums like to bite the back sides of human legs, arms, and backs, because there is less wind resistance in these places on a human who is walking.
No-see-ums can bite multiple times and typically feed in large groups, so you will usually find clusters of bite welts on your skin instead individual bites. Any area of exposed skin is vulnerable to attacks from these insects.
Figure 2 (see Page 3) is a photo of two human ankles covered with no-see-um bites. This person was obviously walking barefoot through an area where these flies were active.
How Do You Fight These Tiny Bugs That Bite Like Mosquitoes?
How do you stop them? First, if you are planning a day near the lakeshore or where these tiny bugs thrive, make sure you are prepared.
This might be even more important if there are no or low-wind conditions in the weather forecast, because wind affects their flight.
Insect repellents containing DEET or Citronella are effective at repelling no-see-ums. Avon’s “Skin So Soft” is an excellent repellent for no-see-ums. Make sure you treat all areas of exposed skin, because even a small area left untreated can wind up covered with bites.
The best protection might be wearing a long sleeve shirt and full-length pants; preferably made from a fabric woven tightly enough to prevent no-see-ums from penetrating it.
If camping where no-see-ums are prevalent, having a tent with no-see-um mesh covering any openings will keep them out of your sleeping area. No-see-um mesh generally averages about
1,200 holes per square-inch, and the small holes effectively prevent these tiny biting flies from getting past the screen.
The same no-see-um mesh can be found on some portable screen-rooms, which can be set-up around eating areas.
No-see-um mesh can also found with mosquito nets for camping, mosquito tents and mosquito hammocks for those who want to sleep outside of an enclosure. Alternatively, for minimalist outdoor enthusiasts, a good quality mosquito net might suffice.
It is best to keep in mind that the season during which no-see-ums are most active is during May and June, when the weather is just beginning to warm up. The problem will last for a few weeks before the bugs go away. For the yard you can always get a bug zapper.
Treatment of No-See-Um Bites
One of the most important things to remember when you have no-see-um bites is to stop yourself from scratching the affected area. Scratching the welts can cause them to break open, potentially allowing them to become infected.
Wash the affected area of your skin with mild anti-bacterial soap and warm water. This will help remove any leftover saliva from the bugs and reduce the amount of irritation you will feel.
You can help mitigate the swelling of the welts by applying a cold-compress or ice-pack. Cold-compresses applied in 10 to 15 minute intervals as needed can help numb the affected area for the first 24 hours, and should provide some temporary relief.
A standard over-the-counter analgesic or antihistamine cream (such as one containing Benadryl) can also help reduce pain and itching in no-see-um bites. Creams or ointments are more effective than sprays.
A medication that is a bit stronger than topical analgesics and antihistamines is Cortisone cream.
Cortisones work to block the body from releasing chemicals or activating cells that can worsen itching and swelling around insect bites.
Zinc ointments and creams are also effective medications to help relieve no-see-um bite symptoms.
An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure
Bugged in the backyard?
The best way to prevent these tiny bugs that bite like mosquitoes is to be prepared when you are going on an outing where no-see-ums will be present.
Just make sure you have DEET, extra clothing, and no-see-um mesh screening; along with some Benadryl ointment in case you are bitten.
If the no-see-ums start biting, ditch the short pants and tank-tops for heavier clothing and apply DEET where you cannot cover your skin—minor inconveniences compared to having deal with multiple red itchy welts for a couple of weeks.
Ceratopogonidae. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved July 24, 2015, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ceratopogonidae
Roxanne Connelly. (2013, August). Biting Midges, No-see-ums. Retrieved from http://entomology.ifas.ufl.edu/creatures/aquatic/biting_midges.htm
Robbeloth, Dewitt. (2013, August 13). Bug bites: The lowdown on no-see-ums. Retrieved from http://mountainx.com/opinion/commentary/bug_bites_the_lowdown_on_no-see-ums/