TERRE HAUTE —
Ah, you can’t beat an invigorating springtime walk in Indiana.
In my case last weekend, it was just me, my wife, bright sunshine, a slight breeze …
… and three dozen gnats performing a sting operation as they relentlessly orbited my head for the entire 3-mile trek.
They hail from the Black Fly Family (we’re talking bugs here, not “The Sopranos”). Their scientific name is “simuliidae” but most people call them “buffalo gnats,” because of their humpbacked shape. The “g” in gnat is silent, which is ironic because many adjectives used to describe them begin with that same letter.
Swarms of the biting gnats have hassled Midwesterners in recent decades, but anecdotal reports indicate the pests are particularly active this spring, including the Wabash Valley. “It’s an area-wide phenomenon,” said Jim Luzar, Vigo County Purdue Extension educator.
If you’re wondering whether you’ve ever encountered a buffalo gnat, you probably haven’t, yet. It’s a memorable experience. They’re tiny, between a 16th-inch and an eighth-inch long. They’re blood suckers, with a hankering for exposed skin on the face, neck and ears of humans. Once your head gives them a home, the buffalo gnats don’t roam. The pesky buggers buzz into your eardrums and mouth, crawl under your sunglasses, and tour your neck, looking for just the right spot to bite. Swatting is useless; in fact, it seems to arouse the gnats.
And what kind of parting gift do they leave for their “host”? A welt, which swells and itches for days and days.
“They can be quite a nuisance,” said Ralph Williams, professor of entomology at Purdue University for the past 35 years.
So I asked the professor, why are they here?
Unlike mosquitoes, buffalo gnats breed in clean, fast-moving water, and this year’s heavy spring rains increased the stream levels and may have spurred their development from larvae into adults, Williams said.
That explains the current situation, but why are they here, period? Do buffalo gnats serve any useful purpose?
Well, their larvae and eggs (attached to underwater vegetation) add to the food chain for fish and other aquatic organisms, Williams said. (Fish also find several kinds of bait tasty, yet worms, crickets and dough balls don’t leave welts on my skin, but I digress.) “And, they’re a good indicator of pollution,” he added of the gnats. “If they don’t occur in water that they usually would appear in, it could indicate pollution.”
Indeed, while efforts to clean up water pollution during the past three decades have succeeded, insects that breed in clear, fast-moving streams — such as buffalo gnats, mayflies and stoneflies — are thriving, a University of Illinois entomologist told the Peoria Journal Star last week. Thus, an off-year for gnats could signal pollution, as Williams put it.
Still, it’s hard to celebrate river purity while the buffalo gnats’ A-Team shuttles between your nose and earlobe.
The bugs seem to have the upper hand, temporarily, that is. “There’s no practical control, like you would for mosquitoes,” said Williams. Because the gnats’ habitat is moving water, most tactics used for mosquitoes — such as draining standing water around yards and farms — won’t work. Treating lawns won’t stop gnats, either. As Williams explained, buffalo gnats can travel several miles from their breeding locations.
“There’s no control other than personal products,” Williams said.
He recommends only EPA-registered products for biting insects, such as sprays containing DEET. Because buffalo gnats also target horses, Williams suggests coating the horses’ ears with petroleum jelly to repel the bugs. (I asked if that would work for humans, but he didn’t suggest trying it, saying, “It could be kind of messy.”)
Some folks wear hats with a mesh veil extending from the head to the shoulders. Some put up birdhouses for insect-eaters like purple martins or swallows.
Local golfers have discovered other weapons in the war on biting gnats. Some place a dab of Absorbine Jr. on their neck or their sun visor, and that strong-smelling ointment appears to turn off the gnats, said Candy McCord, proprietor of Mark’s Par 3 Golf Course east of Terre Haute. Other women in a Rea Park golf league in which McCord plays spray themselves with diluted vanilla extract or Listerine. Some drape a dryer softener sheet over their necks from the back of their cap or visor.
Results may vary. “Some ladies are more susceptible than others,” McCord said, chuckling. “Maybe because they’re sweeter.”
This all probably seems quite entertaining to the buffalo gnats. Their amusement is fleeting, though. The neck-biters’ lifespan is short. By mid to late June, most of the gnats will be dead. “They only live a few weeks,” Luzar said, “so that’s a good thing.”
Of course, before they die, they’ll lay eggs in streams, guaranteeing the gnats’ next — as Roger Daltrey once pronounced it — g-g-g-generation.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
TERRE HAUTE —
Ah, you can’t beat an invigorating springtime walk in Indiana.
- Mark Bennett B-Sides
Banks of the Wabash Festival is more than just yearly entertainment
Pioneers think counterintuitively. Where others see widespread apathy, they focus on the possibility for progress. In a way, the 2013 Year of the River celebration began in the 1970s.
MARK BENNETT: After running for 28 hours straight, what’s another 5 miles?
Some phrases can only be uttered by a few people, or none at all.
MARK BENNETT: Glitches show limitations of high-stakes testing concept
The dog ate my homework. That age-old excuse — based on a shockingly unforeseen complication — rarely works for a kid who didn’t finish yesterday’s math assignment. Yet, in a role reversal, Indiana school children, along with their teachers and administrators, are left to accept an explanation for a disruption best described as the mother of all ironies.
MARK BENNETT: One step at a time to save lives
Remember that name.
MARK BENNETT: Sometimes, the mere posing of questions is significant
The era seems quaint now, almost like a fable. When people left their house doors unlocked. When the sight of a police officer in a school meant it was Career Day.
MARK BENNETT: New reality steers Nashville singer to Crossroads for Historical Society concert
People pass through the Crossroads of America for lots of reasons.
Business trips. College campus events. Federal prison sentences. Visits with relatives. Gas pitstops.
Or maybe a career change and a twist of fate.
Ty Brown makes his first stop in downtown Terre Haute as the headliner of a multi-band Sweet Sensations Country Jam concert May 4 in the Ohio Building — a fundraiser for the Vigo County Historical Society.
MARK BENNETT: Terre Haute barber ‘sharpens up’ customers for 50 years
People streamed through this section of downtown Terre Haute in those days.
“You could hardly walk by here,” John Hochhalter said, pointing toward the sidewalk outside the window.
The bustle has faded since the early 1960s. Hochhalter remains. He’s still barbering in the same shop he and late business partner Kenny Thomas opened a half-century ago this week.
MARK BENNETT: Memories, emotions rush back with announcement of new pope
I saw a pope once.Read quickly, that sentence sounds too casual, almost as if we’d crossed paths at Home Depot. Say it slowly, though, and the significance comes through.
MARK BENNETT: Reflections of grid success stir with Brent Anderson’s passing
A few hundred miles away, and nearly 40 years gone by, a special game ball still occupies a fond place in Rudy Bohinc’s memories.
Lent meets ‘The Bucket List’ in Terre Haute
Initially, the concept might conjure images of Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman jumping out of an airplane or sitting atop the Pyramids. Instead, think “Lent Meets ‘The Bucket List’ in Terre Haute.”
MARK BENNETT: Never truer: Knowledge vital to narrowing ‘skills gap’
The pillar at the gates of Faber College in the movie “Animal House” bore a wise motto, despite its tongue-in-cheek intent …
MARK BENNETT: Great-niece to re-enact Paul Dresser’s musical legacy in Terre Haute show
People can be forgotten. Their lives end, time passes and memories fade.
Often, the only keepers of their legacies are family and friends, who tell and retell their stories, generation to generation.
For Paul Dresser, his fame burned strong enough as a turn-of-the-century, million-seller songwriter to preserve bits of his public notoriety.
MARK BENNETT: An Olympic takedown
Imagine an iconic image of American sports history erased.
MARK BENNETT: Indiana’s ‘skills gap’
A problem lasting decades ceases to be a “problem.” By then, the situation becomes “part of the culture.”
MARK BENNETT: America’s best quality of life? Indiana must address flaws, set priorities
Just as the job interview seems smooth, the interviewer drops the question.
“So, where do you see yourself in five years?”
MARK BENNETT: Pondering what is meant by ‘quality of life’ to Hoosiers
Sometimes it’s sincere. Other times, it’s sarcasm.
You cross paths with a friend, ask how they’re doing, and they say, “Ah, just livin’ the dream.”
Livin’ the dream. What exactly does that involve? Can it be defined?
MARK BENNETT: By whatever name, stomach virus still a sick story
It’s the ugly side of the cold-and-flu season.
MARK BENNETT: Living on the banks
We are the Wabash.
MARK BENNETT: Rising young producer lands spot in Sundance Film Festival
When a project clicks, the moment is clear.
MARK BENNETT: Remember the 20 children lost
Their names were listed on the screen at the front of the church on Sunday.
Our pastor asked us to choose one and pray for their family. I selected Noah Pozner, just by chance.
MARK BENNETT: Tasting panel to help find Champagne Velvet’s ‘million-dollar flavor’
Rounding up enough volunteers to serve on a committee can be a struggle.
MARK BENNETT: Thanksgiving’s feast can be defined by either the presence of family or the family’s quest for presents
The best gift deals will be gone by 12:01 a.m. Nov. 23.
MARK BENNETT: Salvation Army touches many lives
Sometimes, the unexpected happens.
MARK BENNETT: Election excellence: 30 out of 32 is pretty darn good
Detroit car makers unveil the latest Mustangs and Corvettes on Wabash Avenue.
MARK BENNETT: Climbing the rungs of Lincoln’s Ladder
One crucial quality helped Abraham Lincoln become America’s greatest president.
Courage? Political savvy? Wisdom? Moral character?
MARK BENNETT: Drop the needle
Over time, excellence and nostalgia inappropriately merge in our minds.
No matter the age, voting’s a part of American fabric
The electoral karma seemed, well, unfair.
MARK BENNETT: A moment on the brink
Ominous, but distant.
MARK BENNETT: Valley-born filmmaker influenced by roots
Real-life stories inspire Laura Brownson.
Even those vastly unlike her own.
MARK BENNETT: No debating it: Candidates have it easier than ‘forensics’ specialists
Nightmares can jolt us awake, just before we fall off a cliff or show up for work or school unprepared.
- More Mark Bennett B-Sides Headlines
- Banks of the Wabash Festival is more than just yearly entertainment