Archive for June, 2010

My dad was in a contemplative mood the other day when he called to ask, “Is it true that no matter how much you magnify a no-see-um it still looks like a little black dot?” He paused, “Is it possible to measure both the exact position and speed of a no-see-um at the same time?” Another pause, and then: “Didn’t they teach you anything in college?” I said I’d look into the matter.

No-see-um with chain saw. Carl Newmark, age 11, Urbana, IL

Although no-see-ums and their siblings are found the world around, it’s their cousins, mosquitoes and black flies that get most of the bad press. Indeed, I probably would have dismissed the terrors of the no-see-um as merely mythical, were it not for one evening during an Allagash River canoe trip in northern Maine several years ago.

We’d set up camp on the early side. There was only the slightest wind, the river was a thick mirror of green, gold, and hazy purple. Slow circles dimpled the surface as fishes flickered and water bugs ran errands. My friend made lazy casts from her fishing pole.

Just as the sun dropped out of sight, the languid breeze exhaled one last breath and died. The quiet was spectacular; not a leaf rustled, not a wavelet lapped the banks; we could hear the water bugs scuttling. Paradise would not have begun to do justice to the moment had not it heralded the start of the attack.

How does one describe a no-see-um attack? To say there was a cloud of no-see-ums, or a swarm, would miss the point. You don’t see no-see-ums, nor do you hear them or smell them or taste them; you feel them. A “prickle” or a “stabbing” of no-see-ums is a better description, but it would be most accurate to say a “sawing” of no-see-ums.

The mouth parts of these minute creatures rival the most expensive multi-tool. There are elongated mandibles lined with downward facing teeth used to file holes in your skin. There are tools to hold the wound open and allow for deeper chomping. There are glands that produce anticoagulants to keep the blood from clotting. There are blood-slurping appendages. There are even little bug seat-belts (barbs they sink in next to the cut) to keep them from being blown away during dinner. If airport security ever saw one of these, they would have a fit.

So, there we were, being sawed to death on the Allagash, swatting stupidly at the air, and staring in deep consternation at our forearms in an attempt to discern the slightest signs of movement. By full dark, when the attack was called off, I would have sworn that the fourth Biblical plague of Egypt (the fly one) was undoubtedly a sawing of no-see-ums.

No-see-ums, also known as biting midges or “punkies,” are placed taxonomically in the order Diptera, which are the “true flies.” These are primarily distinguished from fly wannabes such as butterflies and dragonflies, by having only one pair of wings rather than two pairs, as do most insects. In place of the second set of wings Diptera have “halteres” or small knobby extensions which help them balance during flight.

Mosquitoes, black flies and house flies are among the most famous of the Diptera. They subsist entirely on a liquid diet, and feed on such delicacies as nectar, fruit juice, and blood. The blood-guzzling flies, usually females needing protein to nourish their eggs, are able to synsethize anticoagulants in their saliva. The itching associated with many insect bites is often due to an allergic reaction to this anticoagulant. Because they have direct contact with blood, biting flies are prime carriers and transmitters of disease organisms.

In Maine, biting midges, of which there are at least 15 different species (spanning several genera, for those taxonomically inclined)) do not carry major diseases harmful to humans. However, they sometimes pass sicknesses on to sheep, horses and wild ruminants such as deer. Elsewhere they can be terrible pests, transmitting nasty viruses and parasitic worms to both people and animals.

In second grade my daughter was given an assignment to research a bug of her choice. She was supplied with a list of questions, one of which was, “Is this insect helpful or harmful?” I understood the point of the question, but on some level it bothered me. No insect is only helpful or only harmful. Surely there is peril in glossing over the real complexity of natural systems.

I called a number of entomologists in the state and asked them how no-see-ums were helpful. They all agreed that the adults were probably too small to be found and eaten. They speculated that some larvae might be munched by other invertebrates such as stone-flies, but in the end they admitted that, at least here in Maine, we don’t know all that much about the little guys.

It was a Native American legend that finally put my no-see-um in proper perspective. The Anishinaabe people of the Great Plains tell of a river imperiled by a moose who is drinking too much of the water. A small fly bites the moose repeatedly and finally succeeds in driving it away from the river. The other animals rejoice and the little fly is proud, recognizing her vital role in the web of life.

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