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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15 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).

    • Anne

      Use Enforcer brand flea powder from the pet section at Walmart to get rid of no see ums. I lived in FL for years. Don’t leave your windows open and stay out of the grass. enforcer flea powder on the carpets will get rid of them. just leave it down for an hour. In 24 hrs your house will be clear. Flowery smelling shampoos are not a good idea if you are sensitive to their bites. They hate hair products like mousse and hair spray so you should be able to avoid getting them in your hair if you use them

  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.

  3. PJ

    Just moved to Virginia from Denver last summer. Last year it was mosquitoes. This year it’s mosquitoes plus all manner of bugs. Tics gave my dog lymes disease and now there are probably five or six insects that have infested our house, our daughters house and our car. Wish I’d never moved!
    Some are tiny black dots (hundreds of them) that get in beds and on floors and furniture. They must bite because we are miserable and scratch all the time.
    Others look like fine pieces of lint. Others are hard like little wood chips (white) that cut and are abrasive. Others are like little red mites. And still others are like grains of salt.
    We are all going nuts. The dogs cry and we have bloody scratches all over. What do you go for these? We can’t afford to have chemical sprays as I’ve had lupus and cancer. Any ideas?

    • C

      Reading your blog about no see um s and your story sounds all to famliar have you found out what these are or found a solution ?
      Any relief??

  4. anon y mous

    I went here with my bf who didn’t think he had bed bugs and was searching for any other possible answer b/c of looking for all the signs of them for months and never finding one. If you think you also don’t have bed bugs — unfortunately, you may have them and are being fooled by myths about them. Some myths that misled us: people think that you will find traces of them like droppings/blood, and people also think that you will get many bites. Both are often not true. You are going to be wondering for a year, getting bites all the while (and possibly spreading the bugs outside your home). I know this from experience of a boyfriend who spent months of online research, put down every type of trap on the market, and never found bed bugs, until about 4 months into it, he did find just one. He couldn’t find any others but continued to get bites – just one or two – every night. He got them taken care of. Don’t be fooled by the myths of how bed bugs are – just get your place examined by a professional company and proceed from there.

  5. Bonbon

    I had a houseplant that I sat outdoors on my deck for a week and when I brought it back inside, it was infested with noseeums. I used everything on the market to trap them or kill them (foggers — you name it!). Exterminators will not come to your home because they say they cannot kill flying insects. I turned my air conditioning down very low to try to freeze them out and it still did not work. This was in April of 2015. They tortured me and bit me all summer long. In the winter, I didn’t see them anymore and I thought they had died, but in April 2016, they were back again, biting me ferociously. I do not have any pets or houseplants and there is no water source for them inside or outside my home. You cannot locate a nest, because you cannot see them. Someone recommended spraying myself with citronella oil mixed with rubbing alcohol and ingesting 4 brewer’s yeast tablets per day. I was leery of this but willing to try anything. It took two weeks for the yeast to get into my system and now I am “bite free”. They do not like the taste of me since I am taking the yeast. I don’t know how this works, but it DOES WORK. I could not believe it — it’s like a miracle! The person who told me to do this says she gives the yeast to her pets too. Hope this post helps someone because I was so grateful someone told me about the yeast pills.

  6. Lolly Looter

    I had bites for over a year, my boyfriend thought I started cutting myself because they would not go away. I was so frustrated. I saw three different doctors all three said it was bed bug bites. I followed advice and still no change. I did some of my own detective work and found out it was no see ums. I tried a soap from aveno it’s a baby shampoo called intense cleanse with oatmeal. The oatmeal kills them
    I also used an oatmeal lotion I found at the dollar tree it works as well. I found the oatmeal extract in some Victoria secret lotions too. I also tried a shampoo at the 99 cent store called lice repel . I got rid of them finally.best of luck to you all

  7. Margot Sawyer

    I just came back from tge island of Grenada in the Caribbean where I was riddled by noseeum bites. We tried all tge different repellants and creams, none of which were a deterrent to these pests no helped relieve tge itching. I though after we came home that the welts would cease but I feel that more bites or marks keep emerging and am quite uncomfortable contuing the itching and scratching. How long after leaving island can tge bites keep coming?

    • Able Allen

      I’m no expert, so you may want to consult one, but that sounds like chiggers, or possibly bed bugs — not no-see-ums, the bites of which tend drive people nuts in the moment, but dissipate pretty quickly , in my experience.

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