Buffalo gnats a temporary annoyance

Published 1:09 pm Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Deloise Staples was annoyed by the flies so much that she tried to cover her face for protection at the park.

NATCHEZ — A peaceful afternoon by the lake, a patio meal at your favorite restaurant or sitting on the sidelines at a softball game are enjoyable activities — minus the gnats.

Buffalo gnats, also called black flies, are tiny blood-sucking flies that usually breed in the fast moving water of streams and rivers, and they are everywhere in the Miss-Lou this season.

But not for long.

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Adams County Extension Agent David Carter said as the temperature increases, the buffalo gnat population will decrease.

“They have been bad the last couple years,” Carter said. “But as it starts to get hotter, they will go away.”

While some suggest the flooding on the Mississippi River has encouraged buffalo gnat populations, Jerome Goddard, associate extension professor of medical and veterinary entomology at Mississippi State University, said he thinks the increase in gnats has more to do with clean water. He thinks as people are more conscious of pollution, the cleaner water is more inviting to the gnats.

“I don’t think it’s related to the flood,” Goddard said. “But the good news is, they will probably peter out in July. Until then, they bite like crazy and drive you nuts.”

Goddard said in northern states, buffalo flies are a problem every year.

“If you go to Maine and ask about black flies, they say it’s a part of life between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day,” Goddard said.

Goddard said the buffalo gnats suck blood, and the itchy “bite” is the skin’s reaction to their salivary secretions.

While the gnats are aggravating for humans, animals can die from an infestation.

Goddard said there is an ongoing debate over how the gnats kill farm animals. Some scientists believe that the gnats clog respiration while others believe so many bites lead to a toxic reaction in the blood.

Carter said two years ago, the buffalo gnats were even more unbearable in Adams and surrounding counties.

“Poultry was dying all over the place,” Carter said. “We lost about 1,000 birds. We haven’t seen that problem this year. They are heavy, but not as bad.”

Ben Hillyer | The Natchez Democrat Renita Monagan swipes aways buffalo gnats as she watches her 4-year-old son Alexander play on the Duncan Park playground. The gnats became so unbearable that Monagan decided to cut their playground trip short to escape the nuisance.

Goddard said a solution for saving animals from death, and people from the brink of madness, is to stay indoors, but it is fine to leave the door open.

“If you can move your chickens, birds and pets into shelter, the gnats won’t go in, even if the structure is not closed,” Goddard said. “In general it seems to help. I’ve had people tell me putting your backyard chicken flock in a coop makes a huge difference. The gnats don’t like to be inside for some reason.”

Dick Thompson, owner of Live Oak Landscapes, said he and his crew are constantly fighting the gnats.

“The gnats are very persistent and we do a lot of swatting,” Thompson said. “They are probably the most pesky form of mother nature we’ve come across in quite some time.”

An employee at Live Oak Landscapes, Kara Mathis, said people have suggested dabbing on vanilla extract to repel them.

“The gnats are really horrible,” Mathis said. “They swarm your face and everyone is fighting them.”

Instead of applying vanilla extract, Mathis said her favorite lotions seem to help.

“I use Victoria’s Secret smell-good lotions, and they haven’t been bothering me as much,” Mathis said.

Adams County resident Virginia Salmon said she read about the vanilla extract remedy in a magazine, and decided to try it herself.

“These gnats and little white flies are maddening,” Salmon said. “I took what vanilla extract was left in the cabinet outside, and that bottle began a new life (as repellent),” Salmon said. “I just apply it like perfume. Since I picked up on that, I’ve heard numbers of people talking about vanilla working”

Salmon said the gnats seemed to especially drift to her eyes.

“I was thinking of making myself horn-rimmed glasses out of vanilla flavoring,” Salmon said.

Natchez resident Ruth Powers’ daughter recently married in town, and guests celebrated the rehearsal supper and reception outdoors — a beautiful occasion for family and friends, and a potential feast for the gnats.

Powers’ friends, Mary Lees Wilson and Emily Eidt, purchased a product called Cactus Juice, a natural outdoor protectant, and encouraged guests to apply it.

Powers said it worked.

“Normally, any stinging or biting insect within 25 miles bites me,” Powers said. “Those buffalo gnats will eat you up. But I came away completely unscathed.”

Powers said she was skeptical of Cactus Juice at first.

“But I thought, let’s give it a shot,” Powers said. “It’s just a little pump bottle. But it saved both outdoor functions and we were very, very pleased with it.”

Shelton Hand, and employee at Three Rivers Co-Op in Vidalia, said the store carries Cactus Juice. Hand said he has heard the product is effective for repelling buffalo gnats, but they sell out as soon as they get a new shipment.

“We have it on backorder for 30 days,” Hand said. “Some people swear by it. They say the only other thing that works is vanilla flavoring.”

Goddard said folks in the Miss-Lou just need to hang on until early July when the warm water temperature will no longer facilitate the multiplication of the irritating insects.