By Ken Johnson
If you’ve spent much time outdoors recently, there’s a chance you’ve had an encounter with buffalo gnats.
Buffalo gnats, also known as black flies, are small, 1/16- to 1/8-inch-long, humpbacked, black flies. Both the males and females will feed on nectar. However, like mosquitoes, females need to feed on blood to produce eggs. Females will use their scissor-like mouthparts to bite. These bites can be painful and can cause itching, swelling, red welts and allergic reactions in some people (due to the flies’ saliva).
In addition to their painful bites on humans, buffalo gnats have been known to kill poultry and other birds when their populations get high. The toxins from their bites can kill the birds, or they can be so numerous they can suffocate them. Buffalo gnats will also feed on the thinly haired areas of dogs, cats and horses, such as ears and undersides.
Adult buffalo gnats can fly ten or more miles in search of a meal but are most encountered close to the water sources where they develop (usually around half a mile). Buffalo gnats are attracted to the carbon dioxide exhaled by people and animals and to sweat, fragrances and dark, moving objects.
They are most active on calm days, just after sunrise and just before sunset. Individual adults will live for several weeks. Fortunately, once water temperatures start to reach the mid-70s, eggs will stop hatching and adult populations will begin to decline.
Avoiding infested areas, especially when they are most active (early morning and dusk), is the best way to prevent bites. Like mosquitoes, they aren’t particularly strong fliers, so using fans while outdoors can help reduce bites.
Covering as much of your skin as possible will also help reduce the number of bites you receive, such as wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts. Since buffalo gnats are attracted to dark objects, try to choose clothing that is light colored. If you live in an area where buffalo gnats are particularly prevalent, head nets may be helpful.
Although many believe DEET-containing insect repellents are not effective, studies have shown that DEET repellents provide the most effective protection. Many people have reported that vanilla is an effective repellent, as well. Fortunately, buffalo gnats won’t bite through clothing like mosquitoes, so only exposed skin will be attacked.
Good Growing Fact of the Week: It may seem like buffalo gnat populations have been increasing over the decades. This is likely due to cleaner bodies of water. Since our waterways have been becoming cleaner, we have seen an increase in their populations.