Fall brings cooler temperatures, colorful leaves and small, annoying insects. We might call them pirate bugs, punkies, biting midges, no-see-ums or gnats and they’re annoying. Emily Swihart, horticulture educator at Illinois Extension, has all the details on the insect formally known as Ceratopogonidae, from the Greek words ‘Keratos’, meaning horns, and ‘Pogon’, meaning beard.
“They are a member of the fly family, very, very small members, size-wise, of the fly family,” says Swihart. “They don’t have much benefit (to humans), they’re more of an irritant.” These bugs don’t pollinate other plants or eat invasive species.
“They’re an annual fly so they are native here,” said Swihart. “They have what’s called a complete life cycle, which means that they go through four different stages. They need moist environments to reproduce and that would be in things like ponds, moist soil or cattle yards where there’s some food for these flies to help them develop through their life stages.”
Even though conditions were drier this summer, Swihart doesn’t think that will affect next year’s no-see-um population. “There’s not a lot of research that has indicated one way or the other. There are still a lot of moist areas in the Midwest, even though we didn’t get a lot of rainfall. There are drainage areas, leaky hoses or water, trucks for cattle production or livestock production, pond edges; some of those like swamp kind of habitats where they can reproduce.”
No-see-ums overwinter in the Midwest, depending on their life cycle.
“They can complete their whole life cycle within a couple of weeks or over the course of a year, just depending on food supply and temperature,” said Swihart.
These bugs prefer to go after humans but pose no danger, except being a nuisance. “We get bitten by them and we get a concern about possible transmission of diseases,” said Swihart. “That has not been observed to be the case, there is not a disease transfer or effect for humans.” Livestock are affected by some viruses that can be transmitted by insect bites, but most of those occurrences are out west. “Their mouth parts are biting, and they will cause little lacerations on your skin. That’s what people will feel. You can hardly see them because they are so very small. They’re about 1- 3 millimeters in size, which is super tiny, and that’s the adults. Larva and egg sacks cannot be seen with the naked eye.”
Unlike houseflies, there’s not much that can be done to control the no-see-um population. “Even pesticides have not been proven to be very effective because they’re so small and there’s so many,” said Swihart. Using chemicals would require well-timed, repeat applications to reach the tiny bugs.
There are still ways to avoid getting bitten by these pests. “What is recommended is an exclusion practice. You wear long clothing so they can’t physically get to your skin,” said Swihart. “You alter your time of enjoyment of the outdoors so you’re not going out in the early evening when they are going to be most active. You go out when there’s a little bit of a breeze. They’re not strong flyers, so if it’s calm weather, they’re going to be able to be more aggressive. In a light breeze, they would have a hard time flying.”