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It's gnat season, so do what you can to protect yourself.

Last week I was fishing a cousin's pond and was driven out of my mind by a swarm of buzzing, biting bugs. I killed many of them in the battle but they ultimately won the war. I took hits on both sides of my throat and by the time I got home I was so swollen it looked like I had a tennis ball under my chin. The bite on the back of my neck was not quite that bad.

These were not mosquitoes. They were gnats. Some call them black gnats, while others know them as buffalo gnats. I call them the devil's spawn.

Buffalo gnats are small humpbacked biting flies. They are persistent bitters and even crawl into your hair to bite your scalp. Bites from them are generally worse than mosquito bites and the bite can bleed long after the gnat has left.

They are at best a nuisance and at worst a serious pest of humans, pets and livestock. The larvae are found in flowing water where they attach to rocks, sticks, and other structures and sift food from the water as it floats by. Adults are strong fliers so they can be found a long way from water.

Although new to many parts of the upper Midwest, buffalo gnats have been common in some areas of the north for a couple of decades. They are small, 1/16th to 1/8th-inch long, humpbacked black flies. They bite exposed skin, typically leaving a small red welt. When the gnats are numerous, the toxins from their bites can kill poultry.

Adult buffalo gnats can fly from 7 to 15 miles from their source; but in Midwest, most people bothered by them live within a half mile of a stream. Scientific literature reports that DEET repellents provide the most effective protection. Some formulas containing vanilla scent also can work.

In areas with high populations of buffalo gnats, people commonly wear head nets that cover the head down to the shoulders. These are sold in sporting goods stores. Unlike mosquitoes, buffalo gnats do not bite through clothing, so only exposed skin is susceptible to attack.

Controlling the buffalo gnats as larvae is generally not an option. Bacillus thuringiensis israeliensis is effective against the larvae but is covered by extensive regulation before it can be applied to running water. Other insecticide application would not only be in violation of federal and state laws but would likely kill fish and other wildlife. Running water is extensively protected by law because most running water eventually is used as human drinking water.

Buffalo gnats should be a problem for only 2 to 3 weeks and are not likely to return until next year.

The insects that we commonly refer to as "gnats" come in many varieties. Some gnats do not bite humans. Others bite and suck our blood. These biting gnats, also known as black flies and midges, have anticoagulants in their saliva that stop our blood from clotting. For some individuals, these gnat bites are only mildly irritating. Others, however, experience severe swelling and itching.

Gnat-proof your skin. Most gnats cannot bite through fabric, so keep your arms and legs covered, if possible. Gnats love to go for the face, neck, hands, wrists and ankles, however; use insect repellent containing DEET on those areas if you'll be outdoors during gnat biting hours. Petroleum jelly, especially the mentholated kind, can create an effective barrier that keeps gnats from landing and biting your skin.

I hate annoying bugs. Do what you can to protect yourself. And if the bites are numerous or in very sensitive spots you may want to contact your doctor for a steroid shot.
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Publication:Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
Date:May 23, 2018
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