Bill Starr: Mild winters can lead to a gnat-filled summer

Published 7:13 am Monday, May 8, 2017

I will be the first to admit I am not a big fan of extremely cold weather, but the lack of any real winter has made it possible for gnats to be even more of a pest than they usually are. We probably need one of those Minnesota winters to clear up some of our insect pest problems. If you have attempted to enjoy anything outside lately you know exactly what kind of pest gnats can be. Working in my yard recently I felt like I needed mosquito netting to gain some relief from the gnats.
Eye gnats breed and develop in moist, well-drained sandy soils with abundant organic matter. Eye gnats aren’t strong fliers, but they may be found several miles from breeding sites because their small size allows the wind to easily carry them. In warm, dry regions, eye gnats may be present year-round. Ideal temperatures for eye gnat activity and reproduction range from 70 to 90 degrees F., but this insect can survive much colder temperatures. Adult female eye gnats feed on animal sweat, sebaceous secretions, pus, or blood in order to obtain proteins needed for egg production. Eye gnats don’t bite (tear or break intact skin), but have mouthparts that act like sponges to soak up bodily secretions.
The primary importance of the eye gnat as a pest results from the female’s feeding habits. Although they don’t bite or pierce the skin, females crawl over the skin and feed at the eyes, nose, and mouth, or at open wounds. The females are very persistent, so brushing them away is ineffective. Since I have been living in South Georgia I have also become a connoisseur of gnats. Now I know what you are thinking. I don’t purposely go around and try to ingest gnats; it just sort of happens. I was at a barbecue recently and the gnats were so bad I had to use lots of black pepper on the barbecue to disguise the gnats that were attracted to my food. Eating gnats are just part of being in South Georgia. All of us that live in the south have come to accept or expect certain things that are unique to life in the south. For example: we expect every restaurant to serve sweet iced tea, which is like liquid shade in the south. We expect our summers to be hot and humid, and unfortunately those of us that live below the gnat line or in the “gnat belt” we expect our summers to be filled with the ever-persistent gnat, and for some reason this year they have been extremely persistent. Most learn to tolerate the heat we experience and some learn to even tolerate gnats, but this year the gnats have been intolerable.
On most years through the daily contact we have with gnats we get accustomed to the buzz in our ears, and our neighbors and friends doing the traditional “gnat wave.” We have learned to cope with this critter primarily by blowing a quick puff of air from the corner of our mouth, to hopefully get them away from eyes and nose. But this year it has become difficult to tolerate them at all. Georgia seems to be one of those states that have a definitive gnat line. When the gnats get really bad when I am out working I take refuge in my truck. All you have to do to get a really good idea how bad the gnats are this year is to look at the large number of dead gnats that are presently covering my dash. They will follow you into your vehicle and will dry out pretty quickly once you get out of the vehicle with the windows rolled up.
Everything in nature serves some purpose; some we don’t appreciate or understand, but I just can’t for the life of me figure out what purpose a gnat serves. Gnats, I believe, were put on this earth as a pestilence for man. Gnats are deemed such a pest that there is mention of gnats in the Bible. Exodus 8:16-17 “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell Aaron, ‘Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the ground,’ and throughout the land of Egypt the dust will become gnats.’ 17 They did this, and when Aaron stretched out his hand with the staff and struck the dust of the ground, gnats came on people and animals. All the dust throughout the land of Egypt became gnats.” Gnats were part of one of the plagues of Egypt. I have to admit if I had been Pharaoh and gnats would have been like dust I would have let the Israelites go.
I have tried some different control measures for gnats and must admit some work better than others. Dryer sheets seem to work pretty well, and there are several pesticides that seem to repel them for a while. I have tried many things over the years and some seem to work temporarily at least. I have spoken with several of you and you have offered many interesting solutions. Gnats are one of those creatures that we just get accustomed to living with, kind of like fire ants. Gnats have segregated our state into “we have gnats” and “well, we don’t have gnats,” although from speaking with people north of the gnat line, it appears some gnats like the armadillos are relocating to the northern part of our state.
One final note: If you find yourself at an outdoor meal and gnats are present, just use plenty of black pepper, to camouflage the gnats that might be in your food.

Bill Starr is Sumter County Extension coordinator/ANR agent, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service. Contact him at 229-924-4476.