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No-See-Ums: Small Insect, Big Travel Problem

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There were two possibilities: 1) The insects that were biting my body were bedbugs, 2) they were no-see-ems.

It was my first night sleeping in my apartment in Xiamen and I was being bitten all over my body. I couldn’t feel the insects landing on me, just their bites. There was little I could do: the weather was hot so I didn’t want to cover up with a sheet, the A/C unit was out of commission, the windows and screens were buggered by the previous residents, and I didn’t have any insect repellent, even if I’d wanted to use it.

So I just laid there vetting what could have been eating me. Mosquitoes? No, you can hear and feel mosquitoes. Fleas? I considered this for a moment but then managed to catch one of the little bastards beneath a fingernail. I turned on the light and looked under the nail. It wasn’t a flea but I still couldn’t tell what the mashed up, micro-sized organic spec was. I continued eliminating possibilities until I was left with bedbugs or no-see-ems. Two insects that travelers don’t want to do battle with.

I grumbled, lamented, rolled over, and slept. When morning broke I assessed the damage and it became clear what I was dealing with: no-see-ems.

No-see-ums, officially known as Ceratopogonidae, colloquially as biting midges, sand flies, punkies, garden fleas, black gnats, the worst fucking common insect known to the world of travel, are extremely small flies that are less than 1/16-inch long (1–4 mm), which is a third of the size of a mosquito. I refer to them by the name “no-see-um” because you really can’t see them.

This insect tends to live and breed in soggy, wet areas, such as beaches, wetlands, ponds, and pretty much any other stagnant body of water in their realm — which is pretty much the entire world. The females of some species live off of sucking the blood of mammals, and they tend to get active when the sun goes down and stay feasting until dawn.

I knew the next day that no-see-ums were the attackers because of the size and distribution of the bites. There were masses of them, way more than I thought there would be, all stacked up on top of each other. It was an all out attack. You can’t feel no-see-ums for the first 30 or so seconds they are biting you, then only after they are plumped up with your blood and about to finish will you feel a slight tingling sensation.

Initially, the bites feel like those of mosquitoes, but if you dare scratch them they don’t just swell up, but swell up, blister, break open, and scab over. The itchy welts can last for three or four days to weeks.

Think of a mosquito bite to the tenth power.

Stagnant pond outside my window

Stagnant pond outside my window

There is also the rare chance that bites from no-see-ums can transfer leishmaniasis, a difficult to get rid of infection caused by parasites which can cause a wide range of problems — from seeping welts that won’t heal to swollen organs and death — depending on what strain you get. There was at least one reported incident of visceral leishmaniasis, aka kala-azar or black fever, in Xiamen within the past decade, though I don’t believe it’s common. Reputedly, if you are bitten by enough no-see-ums at a given time, even if they are not infected with the leishmaniasis parasite, you can still croak from kidney failure resulting from their toxins alone — though I’ve never heard of this happening and believe it to be incredibly rare.

To be clear, no-see-ums are many times worse than mosquitoes.

Unlike with mosquitoes, fleas, or bedbugs, you don’t do battle with no-see-ums: you just lose. The chance of beating this bug is so obscure as to make the fight not worth engaging in. Unless you are prepared to tightly seal up your abode with windows that are tight in their frames provisioned with special no-see-um screens, keep the A/C running all night, coat your body in neurotoxin, stay fully clothed and under sheets, live in a perma-cloud of Raid, and use plenty of those anti-insect coiled smoking things, you don’t really stand a chance.

No-see-ems are small enough to get through standard window mesh, through the cracks between windows and doors and their frames, and just about any other opening in the exterior walls of a room. Not even standard mosquito nets can’t keep them out. Now, you can buy special no-see-um screens and mesh, but the fact here is that my apartment is so riddled with orifices to the outside world that this seems not worth the effort — especially when the frames of my doors and windows are not without spaces.

Good no-see-um breeding ground well within 350 feet of my apartment

Good no-see-um breeding ground well within 350 feet of my apartment

“There’s not much you can do when the black gnats feed, except to stay away from them,” ran an article about no-see-ums in California.

This is true. These insects are fully equipped by evolution to get their meals. But there is one thing they don’t do:

No-see-ums don’t travel very far away from their breeding ground. So if you can stay away from stagnant water, marshes, ponds, beaches, or other soggy areas there is a good chance you can stay out of their range. The problem is that acceptable breeding grounds can be about anywhere.

I just conducted a brief survey of all the potential no-see-um breeding locales within 350 feet of my apartment, and I had to laugh at the shear number I found. First off, the Chinese like to build these winding little waterways, canals, and ponds through their apartment complexes. They think they look nice. But 9 times out of 10 they don’t take care of them and they just end up being murky puddles of stagnant water. Seriously, this culture is extremely adept at building mosquito and no-see-um breeding pools. Just outside my window is a big green, slimy pond that’s just about as idle and still as a glass of water sitting on a tble.

There is really no question where my no-see-ums are coming from.

Junk pile, another good place for no-see-ums to breed

Junk pile, another good place for no-see-ums to breed

Beyond that, I found around a half dozen other places that had little pools of stagnant water within the grounds of my individual apartment unit. I did what I could to destroy them, but the reality is that there is no getting away from no-see-ums here: these insects can even breed in the puddles of water created by air conditioners or even in damp garbage piles.

No-see-ums are a part of world travel. There is no avoiding them, and there is no way to prevent being bitten. Even many conventional insect repellents often don’t work on them. Andy Graham at HoboTraveler.com uses heavy duty repellent that’s banned in the United States, Raid, and chlorine to keep them at bay.

So what do I do?

I live with no-see-ums, and I’ve accepted that, but I will also fight the best I can. I’ve removed all the crap in my little yard that could be used for breeding. At dusk I close all of the windows of my apartment, cover up with clothes, and a sheets and hope for the best.

Chemicals specially designed to kill things – – even small things – – are probably not chemicals that I want to chose to put on my body and breathe every day. I would rather move to a new location than permanently toxify my place with pesticides, and if I can’t get this no-see-um problem under control I may have to do just that.

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Filed under: China, Insects, No-see-ums, Travel Problems

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3048 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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