If you own a tent, you’ve probably noticed that the holes in the bug mesh screening are quite fine—typically over 1,000 holes per square inch, much finer than your average window screen in a house. The holes have to be this fine in order to keep out “No Seeums" (Ceratopogonidae), the tiniest of biting flies, so tiny that you have to squint in order to see them. In fact, if it’s dark out, you won’t see them at all, unless you happen to shine your headlamp closely on one as it feasts on you. No Seeums, also known as “punkies” and “moose flies” are a family of biting midges 1-3 millimeters in length and translucent grey in color. They have a striped wing pattern that is barely visible to the naked eye in larger specimens. Their tiny size (about half to one quarter the size of a Black Fly) and translucent color makes them nearly invisible. If you find yourself suddenly feeling itchy in the dawn or dusk, or after dark, but can’t identify the cause, you may be the victim of a No Seeum attack. Despite their tiny size, their bite packs a punch, and like Black Flies, they slice holes in the skin then lick out the blood.
Season & Habitat
Here in the northeast, No Seeums are most active in the twilight hours, on moderate to warm nights in the spring and early summer, near wetlands and still bodies of water. They prefer damp conditions; drought will substantially reduce their numbers. Unlike other biting flies, their larvae are not aquatic. No Seeums are not known to be vectors of pathogens in the northeast, but some people are allergic to their bites (the allergy can cause painful, long lasting itchiness).
Ecology and Behavior
Like other species of biting fly, adult No Seeums feed on plant nectars; females will procure blood for nutrients used in egg production. Like mosquitos and black flies, No Seeums tend to attack in mobs. Overall, No Seeums are more localized and less omnipresent than mosquitos and black flies and they tend to travel less far in search of blood; sometimes it is possible to escape them by moving away from their home turf a relatively short distance, and it’s quite easy to out-walk them. I’ve never had a problem with them while hiking—only when I stop and settle down for the evening. They are too tiny to bite through clothing but can easily slip under cuffs and down collars. They will bite any area of exposed skin. They will sometimes pass through house window screens to bite people inside.
Cold weather or a strong breeze will drive No Seeums away, as will campfire smoke, natural insect repellants (such as lemon-Eucalyptus concoctions) and man-made chemical repellents (DEET, Picaridin) insect repellants. While most tents come equipped with mesh netting fine enough to keep out No-Seeums, you can easily carry them into your tent on your clothing or skin—shine a headlamp near the apex of your tent after you get inside, and squash any that came in with you (or else they will find you later). If you’re sleeping in a lean-to in No-Seeum habitat, they will come inside the lean-to to bite—in which case you could protect yourself with an insect repellent or with an over the sleeping bag mesh bug net—but make sure you buy netting with very fine holes (some cheap bug nets on the market aren’t fine enough to keep out No Seeums). There are few fates more torturous than being bit all night by nearly invisible bugs.
If you do end up reacting to No-Seeum bites, consider anti-inflammatory creams containing Benadryl or other salves to reduce itchiness.
Black Flies (Simuliidae) are speedy black gnats that attack in mobs. They are completely black in color and have a distinctly hunched thorax. There are over 2,000 species of black fly worldwide with over 200 species in the United States alone. Black flies are sometimes mistaken for “eyeball gnats” (Liohippelates--a late spring/ summer species of annoying gnat which licks the eye mucus of animals but doesn’t bite) and other small, non-biting flies that tend to congregate in large numbers in the spring (mayflies for instance) but aren’t attracted to human beings.
Season and Habitat
Black Flies only breed in fast-flowing water (they love mountain streams); their larvae attach to rocks and filter feed on algae and bacteria. The adults emerge from the water in the spring. Since spring is relative to elevation as well as latitude, “black fly season” in the northeast may end in the lowlands just as it is beginning on the peaks. Dry spring weather will knock populations down; wet springs will bring them out with a vengeance. Most black fly populations are done by mid-July even at the highest elevations. Occasionally, in the late summer, if conditions are sufficiently wet, a few black flies may return, but these are usually short-lived, localized outbreaks. Black flies are intolerant of polluted waters, so a robust black fly population can be a good indicator of a healthy aquatic habitat. Many animals feed on black flies including various bird species, other insects (like dragonflies), fish, (especially trout), and amphibians.
Ecology and Behavior
Male and female black flies feed on plant nectars, not blood. Only the female black fly will bite for blood: she does so to procure nutrients for egg production. Although black flies aren’t known to be a host to pathogens in the northeast United States, they do leave painful, itchy, and lingering welts. Unlike mosquitos-- connoisseurs who delicately drill into their hosts-- black flies are butchers; they gouge a tiny hole in the skin with their knife-like mouthparts, apply an anticoagulant saliva, and then lick up the blood. They prefer to bite high but will go low often enough to keep you guessing—I’ve found black flies biting between my sandaled toes from time to time. Black flies have acute senses for detecting hosts from a distance but they tend to be somewhat more attracted to darker clothing (which more closely resembles animal fur).
When black flies are in full swing they can assault you in such numbers to make you want to jump off a cliff. They tend to fly around annoyingly for quite a while, landing briefly again and again before they settle down to bite. This is a successful tactic (and possibly a genetically coded behavior--one shared by other species of biting flies): the more you aggravate the victim, tickling their skin and making them fruitlessly swat around, the harder it is for the victim to notice when and where the fly lands and bites. Black flies are masters at finding the tiniest patch of skin unprotected by bug repellent—you could take a bath in bug repellent and a black fly will still find that one spot you missed or rubbed it off. They will crawl into your clothing around cuffs to bite beneath. Even when they are not biting, they will get in your eyes, mouth, and ears and will tickle your skin. Black fly bites itch maddeningly, which benefits the black fly population as a whole --itched wounds will bleed and become desensitized to biting, making it easier for other black flies to procure blood from you.
Thwarting Black Flies
Bug repellent is a must during black fly season (take it with you, as it will wear off when you sweat); I don’t find much difference between manufactured chemical repellents (DEET, Picaridin), or natural repellents (such as lemon-Eucalyptus concoctions, etc.) but I do find that I have to apply a lot of it to discourage black flies and re-apply it during the hike when I sweat it off. I apply it to all areas of exposed skin (except around my eyes, lips, and nostrils), on my hat, and around my collar and cuffs. Even this will not stop them from flying annoyingly around my head. I always wear a hat or keep handy a bandanna to cover my head, and I keep a mesh head net in my pack for the worse black fly days.
Black flies are good enough reason to avoid some places altogether in the spring (in the arctic and subarctic spring they can be numerous enough to be life-threatening), but you can pick your days carefully: cold weather or a stiff wind will thwart them (but as soon as you take shelter from the wind, they will be waiting there for you). Black flies are active only during the day and will avoid dark places—you can take refuge from them in the back of a lean-to, an overhang cave, or even a dense thicket of evergreens. They will mob you most when you are taking a break, and they tend to loiter in places where hikers congregate. The longer you stop, the more black flies will find you. Keeping up a good hiking pace can reduce biting—although black flies are fast, a moving target is harder for them to zero in on. When resting, I’ve sometimes succeeded in diverting some of their mob by placing my sweaty backpack as a scent decoy a few feet away from me and watching while they fruitlessly attack it. When camping, the smoke from a fire can discourage black flies (in old time outdoors language, lighting a fire for this purpose is called "smudging").
Because you will not be able to avoid getting bit by black flies if you hike in the northeast in the spring, it’s helpful to have a salve of some kind to coat your black fly bites and keep the itching down.
Ticks (Ixodida) have eight legs and are closely related to spiders and scorpions. Few blood suckers inspire as much loathing as a tick—find just one crawling on you and you’ll be paranoid of every little itch.
There is something inherently insidious and creepy about ticks, not the least of which is their ability to harbor and spread debilitating diseases—Lyme Disease, Anaplasmosis, Babesiosis, Ehrlichiosis, etc. Lyme Disease is particularly harsh; combating it can require several rounds of powerful antibiotics. Failing to treat it early can cause acute lifelong symptoms.
Lyme Disease is spread primarily by the Deer Tick also called the Black-Legged Tick (Ixodes scapularis), which is common in lower-elevation forests, fields, and shrubland across the Northeast. They are rare to non-existent in higher elevation boreal forests of northern New England. These ticks, identifiable by their reddish lower abdomens, come in a variety of sizes ranging from pencil-eraser-sized adults to pencil-dot larvae. All sizes will bite.
Other ticks: Lone Star Ticks (Amblyomma americanum), formerly a Midwestern and Southern tick, have been expanding their range with climate change and are now occasionally found in southern New England. Like Deer Ticks, Lone Start Ticks are vectors for many pathogens. They can be identified by the single white dot on their carapace. Asian Longhorned Ticks (Haemaphysalis longicornisare) are an invasive tick species from Asia that has been reported in parts of the United States (CT and NY in the northeast); they are less likely to bite human beings, but can transmit pathogens when they do. Winter Ticks (Dermacentor albipictus) inhabit the northeast but they almost exclusively host on hooved animals and are not known to feast on human beings. Winter ticks may infest moose in such great numbers that they can kill the animal.
Season and Habitat: Ticks are particularly abundant in the spring, rare by mid-summer, and resurge in the fall. They can linger into winter in snow-free areas and emerge on thaw days. They like damp conditions—drought will force them into hiding. Ticks prefer grassy or shrubby areas; the action of an animal passing through dense vegetation makes it easier for a tick to attach to a host. They are therefore uncommon in woodlands with a clear understory, or on farmland where crops are grown and harvested before the ticks can complete their lifecycle. If you stay on trails (and don’t have a free-range tick-magnet dog with you), you’re a lot less likely to pick up ticks simply because the odds are against it: the entire tick population is spread out among many hikers, dogs and animals passing down the same linear corridor of trail. I rarely pick up ticks on popular, well-manicured trails but sometimes pick them up on seldom used, brushy, or poorly trimmed trails.
Ecology and Behavior: Ticks procure blood as food and to produce eggs. They gorge themselves on blood, drop off, then molt or lay eggs. One tick can lay from several hundred to several thousand eggs. The ticks hatch, climb up a blade of grass or low shrub, and wait for a host to pass by. Contrary to folklore, they don’t climb trees and drop on people—doing so would be a waste of the tick’s energy. When they sense the host animal approaching, they reach out with their clingy limbs to hitch a ride on the lower parts of an animal. Sometimes many ticks from the same egg mass will climb the same bit of vegetation—if you’ve picked up a number of ticks over a short period of time this may be the cause. Ticks have acute senses and will sometimes notice and crawl toward a nearby stationary host.
Once attached, in order to avoid being dislodged, the tick will usually hunker down and cling tightly with its mouth (not biting) and all eight legs until the host slows its pace or stops to rest. In my experience with dog ticks and deer ticks, the ticks will rarely bite the feet or lower legs. Instead, they will climb to the groin, torso, or head—places where the blood flow is rich and strong. This may be a survival strategy—animals are more likely to notice and chew off ticks clinging to legs and other accessible body parts. Deer tick larvae are somewhat more likely to bite lower—although even they will usually crawl up at least as far as the thighs.
Ticks have a flat shape and hard carapace, which makes it difficult to remove or crush them (they can be crushed—between fingernails, or with a rock, car-key, or coin, but you have to work at it). They can survive months without feasting, as long as conditions are not too dry or too cold. They tend to linger where they are dislodged: I’ve found them waiting in my car headrest or steering wheel in the morning, where they crawled astray after I picked them up the day before, and I’ve found them lurking in my shower after dislodging them while cleaning up.
Thwarting ticks: The best defense against ticks is to keep them off you, or remove them before they settle in. Contrary to popular advice, I don’t find wearing long pants to be a particularly good defense against ticks. Ticks cling more readily to fabric, less readily to skin, and I’m much more likely to feel or notice a tick crawling up my bare leg than I am to notice one crawling up my pant leg (where it will find its way to my head, burrow into my hair, and become harder to find and remove). Since the tick is usually aiming for at least my groin before it bites, I have a good chance of noticing it on my bare leg before it does any harm. When wearing pants (which I do when bushwhacking), a good coating of insect repellent on my footwear, upper socks, skin above my socks, pant legs, and belt-line helps discourage ticks from hitching a ride (I have had equal success with chemical and natural repellents: DEET, Picaridin, Lemon-Eucalyptus concoctions, etc.). If I’m wearing convertible pants with zip-off legs, I will often find ticks stuck under the zipper flap—a useful feature, and a good place to check for ticks. For that same reason, also check under pocket flaps. If your shoelaces are loose, you’re actively trolling for ticks by sending out lines which they can cling to. I tie my shoelaces up into tight knots for that reason. Some people tuck their pants into their socks, which means the ticks are going to have to crawl up to the head (if your shirt is tucked in) before they settle in (and before you feel them crawling on you)—in my mind, a sketchy practice especially if you have thick hair. In addition to insect repellents, I’ve used Permethrin which is an insecticide (not an insect repellent—do not apply it to your skin!), on my clothing, which is supposed to kill ticks on contact, but I’ve had mixed results with it.
The most important tick-thwarting strategy is vigilance. When I know I’m hiking in a ticky area in a ticky season, I check my legs and clothing during breaks and before returning to my car (remember: slowing or stopping one’s pace invites ticks to start climbing upward). When I get home, I check inside and outside my clothing and then my full body in a mirror, not forgetting my groin, bellybutton, genitals, armpits, and back. I shower then check again--every little speck of dirt is a suspect tiny deer tick larva. I will sometimes leave my clothing and footwear outside for the night, or throw it in the wash right away. Throwing your clothing in the dryer on an extended warm or hot cycle will desiccate and kill ticks. It is wise to pre-treat your dog for ticks (dogs can contract Lyme Disease, too) but also check your dog before you get into your car and again before you enter your house --dogs are magnets for ticks and can transport them.
It’s important to remove the tick as gently as possible, making sure to get the tick’s tiny head as well as its body—squeezing the tick or stressing it too much can cause it to disgorge saliva-laden pathogens into your bloodstream.
The sooner I get the tick off me, the less likely it will have time to infect me with a pathogen. The CDC suggests that a tick needs to be imbedded 36-48 hours before it passes Lyme Disease to its host, but it's wise to get them off long before that. If you do find a tick embedded, and don’t know how long it has been there, consult your primary care physician about preemptive treatment. Pay close attention to any rashes or symptoms of illness over the next few weeks. Getting on treatment sooner than later can prevent debilitating chronic Lyme disease symptoms.