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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Who’s bugging you recently?

Betty Firth
Posted 6/14/23

Is this what we were fantasizing about on a brutal 30 below night? As we damned the ice dams causing a rain forest in the kitchen, were we dreaming of participating in an involuntary blood drive, …

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Who’s bugging you recently?


Is this what we were fantasizing about on a brutal 30 below night? As we damned the ice dams causing a rain forest in the kitchen, were we dreaming of participating in an involuntary blood drive, nourishing the ticks, mosquitoes, and blackflies? How is it that our selective memories muffle the pain of 40 blackfly bites and the inexpressible aggravation of that ONE mosquito flying around our head just as we’re falling off to sleep. Prisoners have been tortured with less effective means.
Big things have been happening in the world what with Trump being indicted, the Polymet mine (now New Range Copper) wetlands permit canceled by the Army Corps of Engineers, another motley crew of Republicans jostling for places in the race for president, lead is found in the drinking water in some Ely homes, and many local citizens responded to the cattle call for extras in a film being shot in town. But I was aware of these events only as quiet whispers of distant rumors, drowned out by the buzzing, chomping, and sucking of my blood. How could I delude myself with the thought, “I won’t be outside very long,” leaving the Deet-free bug stuff tucked in my closet? Blackflies have a finely tuned radar that detects my presence within moments of my stepping out the door and with the accuracy of heat-seeking missiles are quickly dining on my head and neck while their brethren mosquitoes chew up the rest of my body.
I realized I knew very little about these pests that are so prevalent in our lives, so I was determined to learn more and pass it along. I found out we do not really have bragging rights about our mosquito population. We’re not even in the top ten, which includes Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Montana, and Virginia. On top of that, Maine has forty species of blackflies, and Minnesota only has thirty. We don’t even have moaning rights for the most ticks, which goes to the Northeastern states, or blackflies, which goes to Maine. New Hampshire wins the honors for the most bug-free state. However, there are six Minnesota state parks with few mosquitos; heading up the list is Whitewater State Park, which features cold, running water, not hospitable for mosquitoes.
If you think the bugs are picking on you in particular, you may be right. Mosquitoes favor some people over others and can pick out their prey from up to 160 feet away. They can detect carbon dioxide, so people who breathe heavily get their attention as do folks with a lot of skin bacteria and high body heat. They also prefer type O blood, pregnant women, and beer drinkers. They are attracted to dark clothing and movement, so they love it when you’re gardening or playing in your back yard. Mosquitoes don’t like certain scents, so consider using candles, essential oils, lotions, or diffusers with cinnamon, pine oil, peppermint, cloves, eucalyptus, grapefruit, lavender, catnip, marigolds, or citronella (made from lemongrass.) Cedar oil, neem oil, and lavender are deadly to ticks while many others are deterrents, including peppermint, citronella, basil, thyme, and tea tree oil.
What good are these insects anyway? Mosquitoes are important pollinators because their primary food source is nectar, not blood, but few plants depend exclusively on mosquitos for pollination. The males feed only on flower nectar and do not bite humans. The females only seek out blood when they are laying eggs and needs protein. They are not considered a keystone species in any habitat, meaning the ecosystem would not collapse if they were all exterminated, but there could be ripple effects throughout the food chain, affecting other species. They are also a vital source of sustenance for birds, especially purple martins, swallows, waterfowl (geese, terns, ducks) and migratory songbirds. Goldfish, guppies, bass, bluegill, catfish, mosquito fish, and turtles prey on mosquito larvae. Insects that enjoy a tasty mosquito snack are dragonflies, damselflies, spiders, and predacious mosquitoes.
Mosquitoes do transmit serious diseases, including malaria, dengue fever, and the Zika virus. Malaria alone affects over 246 million people annually, with a death toll of one million. Their extinction would relieve the costs and stresses of prevention, illness, and treatment.
It’s hard to find anything to love about the blackflies. When I moved to Ely, my first encounter with “those annoying gnats” left me with blood running down my head and large, itchy welts. The description of their bites, using their mouthparts like scissors to cut into skin and lap up the blood was revolting, and I wondered if I’d make a mistake moving here. Beyond the bleeding, itching, and inflammation, the flies can get into noses, ears and mouths, causing more discomfort, and allergic reactions can be life-threatening. How was I to survive these mini-beasts? I was assured that the flies pollinated the blueberries and would be gone later in July, so for years I cut them a lot of slack based on that information. It turns that bees deserve that credit.
The female blackfly has to suck blood from an animal or human prey to complete the reproduction cycle, and they can fly ten miles to find their victims. Females prefer to lay their eggs in clean running water, and the larvae anchors themselves to underwater objects. The adult blackflies provide nutrition for bats, birds, and the larvae feeds many aquatic critters. Also, the larvae uses two fan-like structures from its mouth that filter edibles from the current including very fine detritus, algae and bacteria, helping to keep our streams clean and healthy. We may bemoan a healthy blackfly population, but it means our streams are in good condition.
What about the ticks? Do they have redeeming qualities? They take nourishment from the blood of larger host animals on the food chain and transferring it down to lesser organisms with chickens, turkeys, grouse, frogs, lizards, and squirrels enjoying the feast. Who eats the most ticks? Further south in Minnesota, opossums do, but their tender ears, noses, and tails can’t take our deep cold.
A last bit of good news: there are many types of flies we do not have here, at least that I’m aware. We are not blessed with yellow flies, biting midges, snipe flies, stable flies, and sand flies, although some people mistakenly refer to blackflies as sand flies. We also get to enjoy the exquisite pleasure of those bug-free days in early spring, fall, and the depth of winter.