The Bane of the Scottish Summertime

I actually wrote a version of this article a good few years ago, but though it would be welcomed on wildlifearticles.co.uk, as the time of year for these tiny terrors to emerge is fast approaching.

A midge in your hand is worth two up your kilt

The above is a well know Scottish proverb about the Scottish midge, and although I am not certain if there is some sort of a hidden connotation or innuendo to this phrase, it certainly makes a lot of sense if taken literally. I’m sure everyone that has been to Scotland in summer(ish) time, will have experienced the microscopic menaces, as they gorge upon their bare skin. The Scottish Midge is a famously intolerable insect *rsehole.

I feel that the midge almost epitomises the Scottish summer both literally and metaphorically. Metaphorically speaking, the midge sums up what it is like to live in Scotland. In my personally opinion Scotland it one of the most beautiful and magnificent countries in the entire world, unfortunately spoiled by a few minor (and not so minor) problems. The midge mimics this by so often ruining our otherwise very pleasant days. We wait so long for nice weather, put up with so much rain and dullness, and when we finally do get some nice warm weather … the midges appear to ruin our good times. It’s just typical isn’t it?

Being a person who apparently has very tasty blood, I have often wondered (usually in an arm-flapping rage) what the point of them was. Well the truth of the matter is, like all things, that they don’t really have a point!* Their main purpose of existence  is simply to create more midges. Which is fair enough, as the same can be a said of all organisms. A chicken is just an eggs way of making another egg. Things don’t need to have a point, and they certainly don’t need to be of any use to US to exist. Evolution or more specifically DNA, made the midge, just like it made the human being, simply as a vehicle to continue to exist!

 

midgex

 

So what are midges?

Well if you have ever let a midge sit on you for long enough before squashing it (which would be a bit foolish to be honest) you will know that the midge is a very small type of biting fly. To be fair, not all types of midge actually bite, but the ones which we care about in this chapter do bite (a lot.) They are known as Culicoides impunctatus or the Highland midge. They are generally considered to be the most annoying type of midge, which is nice, but I’m thankful I don’t live in the highlands where they are apparently even worse.  In one study conducted in the north-west of Scotland, five million midges were collected from a two metre area of skin. In the highlands they have to go out wearing mosquito nets, midge repellent is not affective enough.

 

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The Midge Beard – as experienced a few years ago at Loch Katrine

Although you might believe midges number one purpose on earth was to annoy you, like all live the adult midge’s main priority is sexual. The male midge spends its time looking for a partner, it is the female (concerned with feeding its young) that will bite you. In fact the female cannot lay its eggs until it has had a blood meal. After which it lays its eggs in a semi-aquatic habitat, usually in some sort of damp crevice such us under tree bark, in compost or some other type is similarly unpleasant location.  So every time you kill a midge you are stopping it breeding so… good job!

 

How to avoid them.

It is in practice, but not literally impossible to avoid being bitten by midge. In a literal sense, if you know the midge well enough it may be possible to avoid them, but practically speaking it is not going to happen. However, knowing what midges like and what they don’t like will help you to avoid them slightly, or at least understand why you are standing in enormous clouds of the buggers.

 

Midges like …

–        damp conditions

Standing admiring Scotland’s beautiful lochs and fly-fishing in our famous rivers, are often ruined by their mutual attraction to these little biters.

–        still air

Preferred by the midges as it makes flying easier, luckily a rare thing in Scotland

–        warm weather

Insects are cold blooded so help the midges to reproduce and to digest their blood meal, luckily also quite rare in Scotland for most of the year.

–        the shelter of trees

The trees help the midges to keep away from the unpredictable Scottish weather conditions

–        mornings and evenings

Because they know we mostly work 9 to 5

–        dark clothing

Because they know black is slimming. No, it probably for camouflage reasons.

–        shade

To relax

 

Midges DON’T like …

–        dry conditions

The weather is very rarely dry, especially were midges are common. Scotland has a temperate climate which means it has fairly high humidity most of the time.

–        wind

Midges cannot fly or detect chemical trails as affectively in high winds so don’t enjoy it.

–        cold weather

Easy to understand, nobody likes the cold.

–        bright and strong sunlight

I’m not sure why, maybe it’s the blood-sucking/vampire connection.

–        exposed areas

They won’t fly too far from tree, as I explained earlier

–        light clothes

Not certain, may be repelled from light colours as the think is actual light or because they are dark and they stand out against the light background.

–     Insect repellent

It also may be important to know when trying to avoid midges that they are attracted by the carbon dioxide, which we release when we breath. So avoiding large crowds would be another “midge-evasion” technique with potential. Finally, you may have noticed that when you first notice the midges have arrived, their numbers are usually low but steadily increase as time goes on. This is due to the unfortunate fact that midges release a chemical whilst feasting on blood which other midges have developed the ability to detect, giving the impression that they are inviting their pals along to join the party.

 

In conclusion

There can’t be much said for midge to be honest. They are annoying, they take advantage of us and they leave us with bright red welts many times the size of their own bodies, which itch for days. However although I doubt too many people would miss them if they were to suddenly vanish (and global warming may oblige) I believe that the midge is as much a part of Scotland as the haggis, the kilt and disliking the English (joking). Deep down we all harbour a little affection for our minuscule monster mates and Scotland would be a lesser place without them*. I’m not sure how, but that’s the way I choose to end.

Also…

Another bain of the Scottish summer, at least for field ecologists and dog walkers, is the tick. There are two main problem species in the UK, equally as gross as each other, The Deer Tick and The Sheep Tick. Ticks are easily caught when walking through long grass and similar such, although unlike the midge they are fairly easy to avoid. Simple strategies, such as tucking your trousers into your socks and not wearing shorts, make it fairly easy to avoid tick attacks. If a tick does find your skin, it is also relatively easy to remove if you use the correct tool. Do not try and remove a tick without a tick removal tool, as if the head becomes embedded in your skin it can cause infection.

 

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Dogs are much more at risk from ticks, as the enjoy playing in long grass and are unlikely to notice ticks.

Other than infection, ticks are the carriers for several fairly serious diseases. Lyme disease for example, is caused by bacteria-infected ticks. The most common symptom of Lyme disease is a nasty rash, however a whole range of symptoms can develop, including a flu-like illness, facial palsy, viral-type meningitis, arthritic-like joint pains, nerve inflammation, disturbance of sensation or clumsiness of movement and encephalitis (swelling of the brain). If you suspect you have Lyme disease, head straight to your GP, it can be treated.

Tick Borne Encephalitis, better known as TBE,  is a viral disease that attacks the nervous system. it is also a serious condition which can result in serious meningitis, brain inflammation and death. Symptoms can cause increased temperature, headaches, fever, a cough and sniffles. The second phase can lead to neck stiffness, severe headaches, photophobia, delirium and paralysis. There is no specific treatment for TBE.

Ticks can cause serious harm, so although the risk of illness is low, dont forget to be prepared

 

*they are a very important prey species for our most common bat species the Common and Soprano Pipistrelle.  Which if you ever see a bat it is likely to have been a S.Pipistrelle. They are also important prey species to many birds such as swifts and swallows, maybe warblers too, and are munched on by fish in larval form, or when they land in the water by mistake.

 

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Ben Wright

Ben Wright

I am a consultant ecologist with a special interest in protected species and birds. I have some past experience in science writing. I formally wrote a science column for a local paper, and composed a book based on the column (Science Matters) which has just been published.

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