Bug bites: The lowdown on no-see-ums

Bug bites: The lowdown on no-see-ums-attachment0

Photo courtesy of CDC

Yes, Caroline, there are no-see-ums, and they do bite. These tiny flies — commonly known as sand flies — have a lot in common with mosquitos.

In body shape they look like a mosquito, says Paul Bartels, a professor of Invertebrate Biology at Warren Wilson College. Pointing to an enlarged photo, he explains that these insects fall under the classification Diptera — meaning they have two wings and are attached to a thorax.

They also have a needle-like sucker and a separate injector tube. Using the latter, these flies squirt a small amount of anticoagulant to keep the blood flowing. It is our body’s allergic reaction to this anticoagulant that produces the itch, which can linger for many days in some people.

You can actually see the no-see-ums, although they are very small — about the size of a sharp pencil point.  They can go straight through window screens but usually fly low and stay outdoors. There are many species, so individuals would have to be identified under a microscope. 

These, and mosquitos of course, are the usual culprits that sting exposed body parts of creatures that exhale carbon dioxide (including humans). The females seek out blood as a source of protein for their eggs. Males of these species do not bite humans.

Professor Bartels says no-see-ums like the backs of human legs because they are protected from the airflow created by walking, which can affect their flight. 

They live in the grass and low vegetation, especially around coastal areas. They must have constant moisture for their larva, and Asheville’s wet spring and summer has suited them to a tee.

The good news is that a commonly available lotion, Avon’s “Skin So Soft,” is an excellent repellent for no-see-ums. They are also repelled by insect repellants containing DEET, or more natural alternatives like Citronella. The best protection is long sleeves and long legs on pants (tightly cuffed) to prevent them from finding your skin. Wilderness fabrics are deliberately woven so tightly that even no-see-ums can’t penetrate them.

No-see-ums are grouped with gnats and midges because of their size and body form. There are thousands of species of these insects, but most of them don’t bite humans, although they can be quite annoying.

There are other critters that do bite humans, like chiggers, which are mites. The larval form of chiggers seek tight, protected spots between skin and clothing, to bite and inject its saliva, loaded with irritating enzymes.

Chiggers do not lay eggs in human skin (according urban legend) so painting the wound with nail polish will not protect you. The itch is long lasting because it takes time for the enzymes to fade.

Professor Bartels also cautions humans to protect their pets — dogs and cats especially — from ticks and fleas. These cause agony to pets, who can’t tell you what’s wrong, and these pests transmit several diseases. Lyme disease is tick-borne, infects humans and is lurking in the North Carolina woods. 

DeWitt Robbleloth is a freelance writer.

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7 thoughts on “Bug bites: The lowdown on no-see-ums

  1. veloris

    I am so glad I found this page, everyone thinks I am lost my mind, I encountered this bug from Arizona, I have been and still being ate up,i can not get any relief, they made a nest in my hair, I got all my hair cut off, I have used bleach ,bakeing soda, vinegar, tic and flea spray now,, I am in awe right now,cause I broug her ht them home o come up with somethingto my daughters home now her children keep getting bit,she wants me out her home, I need to find a solution to get them out her home.
    Thank You
    Miss Green

    • Mamie Gibson

      I have also been accused of imagining these pesty bugs. How do I get rid of them. Have had Rid X exterminator out twice, have set off bombs twice. Nothing seems to phase them. What can I use to rid my home of them. They really hurt when they bite and can wiggle their way thur clothing and bed covers. Please help.

    • Laurie

      I visited Florida twice last year (2014), one in May and then again in late October. The first visit was near Tampa and I got over 100 noseeum bites on my body. They lasted 2-3 weeks and I was miserable for that entire time. The second visit was to S Florida and I got about 75 bites that time but some of them never went away. Six month later I still have a dozen or so and they still itch! I live in northern California, not on the coast, and I’ve never experienced anything like this before. When in Florida I tried 2 different DEET products and Avon’s Skin So Soft and nothing worked. I’m afraid to visit there again, or anywhere else that is warm and coastal. Lately I’ve noticed some new bites on me and wondering if I brought some of these pests home with me but I don’t see how they would have made it through the winter here (although we had an unusually warm winter).

  2. Help!

    I have similar things in my back yard and I can’t figure out what they are. They are biting both myself and my dogs, and they are absolutely tiny! They look almost clear ( like beige clear exoskeletons) but they don’t look like mosquitos like the way you describe the “no see ums”. They are so tiny that by the time I actually trap one with my finger I have smashed it, and can’t decipher the bits under a microscope. They are about 1mm long or less and probably half that wide and they don’t seem like they can fly, but on that scale I can’t really tell what is going on. Are there no see ums that can’t fly? If I sit in the grass for too long I am absolutely covered. If anyone knows what these are or if these could potentially be “no see ums”. My boyfriend thought i was just having an allergic reaction to the grass but NO! Its something like these things! Hate them! – Austin, Tx

    • Lisa

      If you are sitting in the grass that sounds more like chiggers look them up

      • Help

        Definitely not chiggers. I grew up in the south east and have known what those look like my entire life.

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