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How to stop those tiny black bugs with a mean bite? It's not bug spray but what you wear

The bugs - called minute pirate bugs - are testing to see if you're food

A minute pirate bug feeds on whitefly nymphs. (Jack Dykinga / USDA)
A minute pirate bug feeds on whitefly nymphs. (Jack Dykinga / USDA)

It started as a perfect Sunday afternoon — possibly one of the last warm days of the year — for an outdoor show.

Cedar Falls musician Bob Dorr, leader and founder of The Blue Band, and his bandmates were slated to play for four hours at F.B. & Company in Waubeek, a town just outside Anamosa along the Wapsipinicon River.

“If you were to sit down and write out what you would want for a great weather day, that (Sunday) would be it,” Dorr said. “A little bit of breeze, sunshine, 75 degrees, it was perfect. It was exactly what I — and I’m sure what F.B. & Company — was praying for. But we didn’t count on the bugs.”

Those bugs were minute pirate bugs — also sometimes called noseeums — and they were relentless. So much so that Dorr and his bandmates cut short their show.

“We were inundated,” Dorr said. “I was wearing a long-sleeve white shirt, and it almost looked gray at the end because all the bugs were on my shirt, on my arms, and around my neck.”

Dorr said his wife, bandmates and people in the audience were being “eaten alive.” The final straw came when “three of four of those bugs flew up my nose and all of a sudden I was bleeding from my nostril. That’s when I pulled the plug.”

If you spent any time outside this past weekend, you probably can relate to Dorr’s story. The tiny black-and-white bugs are out in droves and they pack a shockingly painful bite given their minuscule size.

‘Coldblooded killers’

Also called insidious flower bugs, minute pirate bugs are a common biting pest that plagues those living in the eastern half of the United States every fall, according to Donald Lewis, a professor and extension entomologist with Iowa State University’s Department of Entomology.

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“I suspect that one of the first people who identified these bugs must have been bitten by one, and it hurt so bad that they went ‘Arrr,’ and the name ‘pirate’ bug stuck,” Lewis said.

About one-fifth of an inch long, minute pirate bugs are “coldblooded predators,” Lewis said.

“They are coldblooded killers,” he said. “They spend the summer in the garden, in the trees and in the fields where they stab the eggs of other insects with that blunt little beak, and then they suck them dry, so their food is the eggs of other insects. So all summer long, when there were lots of bugs laying eggs, they were beneficial and they provided some biological control.”

But come fall, it’s the pirate bugs that become the pests.

“When we get into fall, and the end of the year, they don’t have eggs left … to eat, that’s when begin to wander,” he said. “And that’s when they come into our parks and into our backyards and they hop up the ladder to where you’re painting on the side of your house, and they bite that exposed skin — your hands, your ankles your wrists, your arms — and I think they are testing or tasting to see if you are a potential food source. Once they find out you’re not food, they leave you alone. But not before giving you a good painful bite.”

The bug is actually probing with its “blunt little beak” — similar to those of stink bugs or box elder bugs — into your skin.

“But they’re not injecting venom, they’re not biting you to feed on blood and they’re also not transmitting any diseases,” Lewis said. “So you’re just getting to experience the annoyance of being bitten and tasted by a tiny insect that happens to pack a painful bite that is significantly disproportionate to their tiny size.”

Lewis said he has a few theories why the bite is so painful.

“One is they are not adapted for secretly feeding on their host,” he said. “When ticks bite you or when mosquitoes bite you, it’s very stealthy. They sneak up on you, they very carefully insert their mouth parts, and they may even inject an anesthetic so that you don’t feel it. These minute pirate bugs have a blunt little beak that they jab mercilessly through the eggshell of insect eggs, and for that reason, they don’t need any finesse. They can just bluntly stab at something that’s not going to try to get away from them.”

Lewis said there may also be some saliva on the pirate bug’s beak that perhaps causes a reaction with human skin, but that’s just a theory.

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“I can tell you the pain can vary from person to person,” he said. “For some people the bite doesn’t hurt at all and for others it can be very painful. It can also cause a variety of reactions. For some there may be no reaction after the bite, while other might react like they would to an allergen where the bites could swell up and itch for several days.”

Bug spray won’t help

Minute pirate bugs are typically impervious to bug repellents, Lewis said, and spraying to control them is impractical — something Dorr can attest to.

“We had bug sprays and repellents, we tried wipes and lotions and oils, we brought out big fans in the hopes the wind would blow the bugs off,” he said. “One person in the crowd — which started at about 75 and steadily dwindled down to about 40 — had patchouli oils, so we tried that, too. Nothing worked. Nothing deterred them. It was something that I’ve never experienced and I’ve been at this for 40 years.”

The one thing that might help deter the bugs, Lewis said, is covering exposed skin and wearing darker colors. The pests seem to like lighter colors.

Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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