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

No-see-ums, or sand flies, are one of the most annoying insects for the world traveler. This is how I deal with them.

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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.

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

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3703 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

7 comments… add one

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  • bob l September 2, 2013, 9:03 pm

    Are Ceratopogonidae one group or what?

    I know that when I get bit by sand fleas, I get serious welts. And they absolutely love me. My GF only gets a few bites, and they tend to be mild. What we call no-see-ems here in NH are VERY small, much much smaller than most sand fleas I have experienced, which are pretty darned small to begin with. The local no-see-ems don’t cause me as much problem as sand fleas. There are other no-see-ems here that are much bigger than the previously mentioned, but still much smaller than sand fleas that are a serious problem when they are here, but are not here often. Sand fleas can be combated with almost any oil, such as mineral oil or even olive oil, IF you know they are around. For my experience, sand fleas hardly ever bite above the knees. Other no-see-ems will bite all over.

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    • Wade Shepard September 3, 2013, 9:45 pm

      I think there are all kinds of them.

      For sure, I think these are probably the worse insect out there for their annoyance level. Especially since the inflammations from their bites don’t go away for a relatively long time — and if you scratch them they seem to just stick around for as long as you keep scratching.

      Will try the mineral oil next time when sleeping out in the bush. These little shits seem to be able to get through socks, but they seem unable to really bite, get inside, shirts and pants. Would be good to spread some oil on my ankles and lower arms.

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  • Rick June 2, 2014, 8:44 pm

    best thing i have found is keep a fan on high pointed at you while you sleep. They can’t fight the air flow.

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    • Lifestyle Prowess January 25, 2018, 11:04 pm

      Do you use no see um screens? No, I am not referring to the old screens for mosquitoes but screens specifically made for no see ums. They are made tiny to ensure no see ums cannot crawl through.

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  • Lori October 8, 2015, 2:43 pm

    I thought fleas….don’t really have but a few tiny plants…put DE on them…then have glue traps…you can see like dust on them..but, i am getting bitten…have fan blowing on me, but seem to blow them at me…vacuum constantly..did DE, it was a mess and vacuums were a mess, too. I used two…but, afraid to destroy them to treat again…treating like fleas..but, there is more…dust like particals…many in my lil apt..I am clean, and this is driving me mad for months…I vacuum 3 times a day…sometimes just let vacuum run by me, and use blow dryer under covers and down pillow cases to try to dehydrate them….I can see them floating…and feel them on my face and neck and under by chest…it is endless…help me….I can’t keep spray bug killer…poo is black…seriously seems to be getting worse….

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  • Samantha August 23, 2019, 2:35 pm

    Wade, nice article, and I love the personal experience. But, I’m going to go off-topic a bit. I saw where you’ve been traveling since 1999? Crap! I can’t imagine how many places and people you’ve seen, and the varied cultures you’ve experienced. This is my dream! Would love to know how you’ve done it. Anything tip would be useful.
    I got jealous and checked out all the countries you’ve visited!
    Here’s one to add to your list that’s missing: JAMAICA!
    Yes, Wade, please come to Jamaica. We’d love to have you. 🙂

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    • Wade Shepard August 30, 2019, 9:04 am

      Hello Samantha,

      Thanks for getting in touch. There’s hundreds of posts on this blog about how to start traveling and making money and stuff like that. Check out the drop down menus in the sidebar under the heading “navigate.”

      Other than that, I’d love to meet up in Jamaica sometime!

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