Sunday, 2 June 2013

Itchy, itchy, scratchy, scratchy

It is middle of "bug season" here and we were outside the other day, enduring our weekend dose of biting, and we noticed that some of the mosquitoes were big, some were little, and some of the things biting us were actually flies.

So - who is actually biting us?

Biting insects are the source of a perverse sort of pride here in Ontario. While obviously they are a big, itchy, swarmy, bitey pain in the bum, there is a rite of passage to surviving the spring bug season and so year after year we sit at campfires and tents in the spring and early summer smacking ourselves and keeping the good people at Deep Woods and AfterBite in business.

While we joke about the mosquito being our provincial bird, we don't have that many species comparatively. We have about 80 species in all of Canada - and I know you are thinking that's a TON, but it's not. There are about 3000 species in the world, and with insects you have to say "about" when talking about numbers because there's no way we know them all and they have such minute differences that scientists constantly figure out what they though was one species is actually two or three or seven. Three of those 80 are exotic species, which means somewhere along the line mosquitoes decided that we didn't have enough and started hitching rides here (probably larvae in imported things with water). Ontario wins for most species out of the provinces with about 64, Quebec is runner up with 50 and BC next with 46. Go Ontario!

Mosquitoes have been around a LOOOOONG time. They show up in fossils around 89-99 million years ago. Yes, trapped in amber and no, so far they don't have cloneable dinosaur blood in them.

Crazy thing - not all northern mosquitoes eat blood. Some keep enough from their larval eating that they don't need to or they eat other things - Wyeomyia smithii breeds only in the water in the pitchers of Purple Pitcher Plants (Sarracenia purpurea) and the larvae preys on the even smaller organisms right there in that water. And in those that do require a blood meal, it's only the females that bite (Girl Power?). Both males and females eat sugar (mmmmm sugar) usually from flowers, and then in some species the females are the blood suckers to gain extra nutrients for egg laying.

They are attracted to carbon dioxide, so unless we figure out a way to breathe that doesn't involve expelling that we're pretty much always going to be a target. So once they land on us the proboscis (long bitey bit) injects a special saliva which prevents clotting and that's what we react to. Bunny was quick to point out that butterflies also have a proboscis, but their is used for only for flowers (good) and not people (evil) and is seriously not impressed with the idea of bug saliva being injected into her and an impressive "ugh" face was made. Beans wasn't really paying attention as she was busy scratching the giant bite on her neck.

I'm not posting all 80 mosquito species - but here's a few (I have made all the pictures in this post small so as not to disturb people with giant insects in their face):

Ochlerotatus triseriatus
Eastern Treehole Mosquito
Copyright © 2009 Ilona L.

Culex pipiens
North American House Mosquito
photo credit
Anopheles walkeri 
 Permanent Marsh Mosquito
© Tom Murray

If you want to see more (and why wouldn't you want to see more!) check out - Family Culicidae - Mosquitoes

But the thing is here, with the biting and the buzzing and the hey hey, it's not just mosquitoes. The Blackfly is a famous Ontario resident, it's even got it's own song (link for the benefit of those who don't know about blackflies picking their bones in north Ontar-i-o-i-o, in north Ontar-i-o). There are 1250 species of blackfly worldwide (everywhere except Antarctica) and we proudly have 162 in Canada, in every single province - although BC tops the chart this time with 81. Nova Scotia is last, but I feel this means they win, with 13. Same deal - only females bite and everybody eats plant nectar.

Simulium sp.
Black Fly
© Tom Murray

And we're not done there. Here's some other stuff that bites, and still, only the females bite (it's an egg thing):
No See Um (Biting Midge) - these fit through screens, the little buggers
Copyright © 2011 tom murray

The scourge of canoers feet everywhere - DEER FLY
Copyright © 2010 Stephen Luk

Horse Fly - these tend to circle our heads while swimming causing much splashing and dunking
Copyright © 2012 tom murray
I know, it looks like a housefly right? WRONG - it BITES YOU and is a Stable Fly
Copyright © 2006 Stephen Luk

One that does not bite:

This guy I feel sorry for. He's a Crane Fly, but often gets mistaken for a giant mosquito and gets smacked anyway. He doesn't bite, he just wants to hang out and eat some nectar (and some crane fly larvae actually eat mosquito larvae!). New PSA slogan: Check before you Swat, he probably wouldn't even land on you but they do seem to like to hang out in doorways and on screens.

Please don't swat me!

Now, after all that discussion on how much it sucks that there are biting things out there when all we want to do is relax by the lake and have a marshmallow or six, it should really be pointed out that they all do serve a greater ecological purpose. They are a really important food source for a number of birds, dragonflies, bats, fish and assorted amphibians. I'm going to look at it as donating blood to a good cause.

More Mosquito Material:


  1. Perfectly timed post, as usual, Kate. Felix just asked me this morning why Mosquitos are 'so mean'. I told him that they're not evil, they're just trying to survive, and they are te food for other things we like (birds, bats), but I had no idea what else to tell him.
    Thanks for the awesome info!

    1. You are very welcome!
      It doesn't make them any less itchy though.