Quintessentially Lowcountry: Really, the sand gnat should be the state bird

September 11, 2009 

  • To learn more about what can help you get bitten less often, go to the Centers for Disease Control and Preventation's Web site and type in "insect repellent" in the search field.

Like a criminal gang, they are blood thirsty, merciless and find their strength in great, overwhelming numbers.

They also use any number of aliases.

No-see-ums.

Punkies.

Biting midges.

Sand gnats.

Culicoides furens.That last one is the name they're born with, what science calls them.

Most of us call them a simple torment, an affliction that is a slapping, itching, swelling part of life in the Lowcountry.

Here's what happens when they bite, according to Georgia Department of Natural Resources Web site.

Their mouths are the perfect weapon for an organism that lives on blood.

Unlike mosquitoes, which give us a break and simply puncture the skin, these little criminals rip it open using sharp teeth located on the mandible. They then insert two dagger-like blades that hold like anchors on a rocky sea bottom. They rip up the skin so that the blood begins to flow.

Next, they squirt a chemical into the open wound that keeps the blood from clotting. Once a tiny pool forms, they use a straw-like device called the proboscis to drink their fill.

There's more bad news.

Just as the criminal world is populated by a number of different sorts of gangs -- think Sharks and Jets, Hell's Angels and Mongols, Crips and Bloods -- sand gnats also come in a number of varieties.

That means, according to Gregg Hunt, director of Beaufort County's Mosquito Control, that they are with us almost constantly.

"The problem is that there are several different types of sand gnats," he said. "One or the other of them are abundant all year. Some prefer cooler temperatures and disappear in the summer. Others peak in the mid-spring or mid-fall."

He did offer one glimmer of hope. We can expect to see fewer of them in the winter.

Eric Benson, a professor of entomology at Clemson University, agrees.

"They're present year around," he said. "They don't go away, but do subside in the winter."

And while no one really defends the presence of these little teeth with wings, Benson says they are a part of the natural environment, a food source for small birds, amphibians, fish and lizards.

So what can we do to meet and defeat this menace?

Attack them with widespread spraying efforts like the ones that keep mosquitoes at bay?

Won't work.

"Because (sand gnats) are so tiny, many of the insecticides that are effective against mosquitoes aren't very good against them," Hunt said.

And they're not particular about where they set up a clubhouse.

"There are many different species that breed in a wide variety of areas that even mosquitoes won't," Benson said.

But before you decide to wrap yourself in plastic and never leave the house, consider this.

Deet remains the standard against these little rippers, Benson said.

Hunt suggests at least a 30 percent concentration for adults, applied every two to three hours. Spray it on both skin and clothing.

Some research suggests Skin So Soft lotion is at least temporarily effective, but it doesn't last as long as products containing Deet, Benson said.

Products containing picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus are also effective, he said.

And, local lore aside, there is no good research to suggest rubbing your skin with dryer sheets is much of a deterrent, Benson said.

Fighting the bite is also a matter of word choice.

Think "disguise" rather than "repel."

Sand gnats cue in on our body size, carbon dioxide, odor and even the color of the clothes we wear, Benson said.

When we use various sprays and lotions, we are not "repelling" these small terrorists, he said. We are "hiding" ourselves, disguising our cues so they can't find us.

The type of clothing you wear is also key to getting bitten less.

"White is a good color," said Benson. Avoid the more vibrant colors since they seem to ring the sand gnat dinner bell, he said.

Benson also suggests wearing loose clothing -- long pants and shirts with long sleeves.

That's the wardrobe he favors when he's in the field with his students. Some of them arrive in shorts and flip-flops, not a good choice unless you like being the main course at a sand gnat initiation ceremony.

So spray, dress, even pray if you like.

But know that in the end, sand gnats, like most gangs, will make you pay whether you want to or not.

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