Bug Off!

Bug Off!


Paradise in Australia and New Zealand is often ruined by tiny little intruders that leave you scratching…

Summer time at the beach, by a river or in some other idyllic camp setting is a time to be savoured – especially if you’re a sandfly. Hordes of humans descend and provide a smorgasbord in what can best be described as the Feastive Season…

No matter which side of the Tasman you’re on and whether you call them midges, sandflies or little biting b******s, genus annoy-us can make outdoor life miserable. These creatures – let’s call them midges – are mainly active at dawn and dusk, in calm weather and usually not far from water. Interestingly (or not!) the number of midges hatching from pupae and then moving to feed is related to the lunar cycle.

The female midge is the ‘biter’. She chooses exposed skin and injects saliva into the hole to thin the blood, which is then sucked out to fertilise her eggs. It is the saliva that causes the allergic reaction and itching.

Biting midges have the greatest impact on visitors to an area: Locals seem to build-up some immunity to the biting. In some sensitive people, midges can produce persistent reactions that blister and weep serum from the site of each bite and these reactions may last for several days to weeks.

Midge defence

There are no known, proved methods of permanently controlling biting midges, although there are literally hundreds of theories on the topic. Avoidance of biting midge areas is obviously the best method, but personal protection will help in reducing exposure. Long sleeved shirts, long pants and socks should be worn, with a repellent on all exposed skin and hair.

Midges are attracted to bright lights and dark, rather than light-coloured clothing.

The search for the perfect biting midge repellent is ongoing, but scientific studies done by various testing authorities indicate the most effective repellents are those containing Deet (di-ethyl toluamide) or Picaridin. Australia’s Defence Forces use Permethrin or Bifenthrin impregnated clothes combined with repellent on the skin. Research in Canada and the USA indicates that the Deet content of a repellent lotion increases the protection level, up to concentrations of around 40 per cent.

A new product being evaluated as a repellent is a chemical known as MR-08 (menthol propyleneglycol carbonate). MR-08 is a GRAS (Generally Recognised As Safe) chemical modified from naturally occurring menthol and used in the food and cosmetic industry today as a ‘cooling’ agent, typically producing the menthol taste in toothpaste.

US-based Poseidon Sciences tested MR-08 against a repellent containing 20 per cent Deet. On human volunteers the Deet lotion provided less than 10 minutes protection from bites. When MR-08 was used in the same lotion, the protection time – the time between application and the first confirmed bite –  exceeded more than 200 minutes.

In Australia and NZ there are plenty of recipes for midge repellent. Most are a cocktail of vegetable or mineral oil, mixed with other substances, including Dettol, vinegar and alcohol/s. The proponents of these cocktails swear by their effectiveness, but scientific testing has shown them to be of little value. It’s possible the repellent effect comes down to an oil-coated midge being more concerned about escaping than biting! 

Vitamin B ‘dosing’ before entering biting midge areas is another repellent theory that hasn’t worked in scientific testing. You may need to experiment with different repellents, because what works for one person may not work for the next. Whatever you use, apply it before you get bitten.

Bite Repair

The average reaction to a midge bite is a small red spot that develops into a domed blister with a hole at the top. More sensitive people can develop a red swelling over a few centimetres. Reactions usually last three or four days before slowly subsiding. Soothing lotions such as Eurax and Stingose give some relief from bites and help prevent secondary infection. Tea tree, eucalyptus oil and Aloe Vera gel can be useful too. More severe reactions require anti-histamine treatment, such as Telfast. The main danger, especially  in tropical areas, is scratching the bites and thereby allowing secondary infection to take hold.

If you can’t avoid know midge areas be sure to dress appropriately and carry a supply of repellents, plus soothing lotions for the post-bite recovery. While you probably can’t beat them 100 per cent there’s no point letting midges scratch Paradise off your destination list.

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