The west highland midge - devils with wings
Anyone who lives in or near the West Highlands of Scotland or who has holidayed there during the summer months will be familiar with the midge, that biting nuisance which can blight anyone's holiday or day trip. Visitors to Scotland are often caught out by the midge even though they may have been warned beforehand. This tiny terror with a wingspan of about 1.4mm (16th inch) is known as 'the scourge of the Highlands' and is quite capable of sending even the strongest man running for cover, a gibbering wreck. They swarm in huge numbers and can completely ruin a pleasant walk turning it into a nightmare from a Stephen King novel - and because of the mild winter and wet spring this year is set to be a bumper year for the midge!
WHAT ARE THEY? (apart from the devil's disciple)
One of the smallest of the biting flies the West Highland midge belongs to the Order Diptera, the true flies (six legs and one pair of wings). There are believed to be about 35-36 different species in the UK with five or six of them known to attack humans. The species which causes the most problems in Scotland is Culicoides impunctatus which can be translated as 'the small fly which bites' (notot the 'sabre-toothed midge' as one of my friends called it!). Culiciodes impunctatus begins to hatch towards the end of May - depending on the weather.
They gradually build up their numbers until they are at their peak in early July through to late August - which just happens to be the middle of the holiday season - and then their numbers decline until they are all gone by late October as it starts to chill for the coming winter.They are at their most active on calm, balmy evenings without bright sunlight, wind or heavy rain - a typical Highland evening in fact. This is when they actively hunt down their victims, swarming by the hundreds of thousands. All sensible people will be indoors at such a time with the windows firmly shut. But don't think you are safe at other times of the day because there is a morning feeding frenzy, a mid-day feeding frenzy and an afternoon feeding frenzy. Fortunately they are not active during the hours of darkness.
MIDGE FACTS (know thine enemy)
- Their name in Gaelic is meanbh-chuileag - 'tiny fly';
- They find their prey by following the trail of cardon dioxide in exhaled breath;
- They only attack mammals - deer, cattle, sheep, you;
- It is only the female midge which bites. She needs a meal of mammalian blood to produce the next generation of midges;
- The itchy, irritating spot after a midge has bitten is caused by the human body's reaction to a foreign substance injected under the skin - midge saliva;
- No-one is immune to midge bites but reactions vary. Most people have a normal reaction of a few day's itchiness;
- Some people have a very nasty reaction to a bite. The affected area swells up into a half-inch diameter angry-looking red lump which is intensely itchy and can last for 2-3 weeks;
- There is some evidence that climate change is causing the midge to extend both its range and active season.
CAN I AVOID THEM? (yes, if you are sensible)
Midges can be avoided and I do not believe they are a reason not to come to Scotland, after all some five million people live in Scotland and 12 million tourists visited between January and September last year (2015) and many of those were repeat visits and they seem to manage OK. Even when they are at their worst at the height of the tourist season there are several things you can do to minimise your contact with midges.
- Stay indoors during those times and weather conditions when midges are most active, ie: calm evenings with overcast skies;
- If you do go out wear long-sleeved tops and long trousers to minimise the area of skin the midges can get to;
- Avoid wearing dark colours as they seem to attract midges. White or other light colours are best;
- Use midge repellents. There are some very good ones on the market. The best place to go for advice is the local tourist office or pharmacy;
- If all else fails wear protective clothing such as a midge head-net which covers your head, face and neck. There is even a midge-proof jacket available.
Public Domain image from Wikipedia
DON'T DESPAIR - IT ISN'T ALL DOOM AND GLOOM!
The Scottish weather is your best friend when it comes to dealing with midges. The wind in Scotland (especially on the hills or exposed places or on the coast) can be quite brisk much of the time and the midges don't like that. Any breeze above about 5-6 mph sends them scurrying back into the cover of the undergrowth so don't curse the wind - if it drops you'll be the one scurrying for cover. They don't like bright sunshine either although, admittedly, that is less common in Scotland than the wind. Nor do they like rain more than a light drizzle (come to think of it neither do I). They are creatures of the damp. Long dry spells keep them down and a humidity of less than about 60% doesn't suit them either.
AND THERE'S MORE GOOD NEWS - MIDGE FORECASTING SERVICE (honestly!)
We in Scotland are lucky when it comes to being out and about in our beautiful countryside. There are no dangerous predators to worry about and no venomous reptiles but just in case you haven't encountered the west highland midge before and are a little sceptical about them take a look at this short video:
Sources: some information from Wikipedia, in-text links and (unfortunately) personal experience!