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Thursday, 14 July 2016

Scottish Midgies: Science and Myth 

Black widow spiders, scorpions, crocodiles, grizzly bears, great white sharks, tigers, pythons.... I could go on listing fearsome creatures but none of them seem to inspire as much dread as the Scottish Highland midge (Culicoides impunctatus): a creature 1.5 mm long that successfully deters visitors but does little actual harm unless you’re unfortunate enough to be someone who suffers an allergic reaction to their bites. The Highland midge does not spread disease to humans, nor is it a fixed feature of Highland Scotland in summer. In the cool, breezy weather we’ve had for the last month here on Arran the midgies simply haven’t emerged. Fact is they don’t like bright sunshine or rainy days, windy days or cold. That leaves still, dull weather to bring them out, and the low light of dusk.

I’m not gloating but intrigued by the fact that, according to research, I am one of 20% of people who isn’t troubled by midges even though I work outside and go camping in Scotland in summer. My personal theory used to be that this was probably because I am rarely hot and chilly skin must present an unappetising mouthful to a hungry midge but new research by Dr James Logan broadcast in the BBC Scotland’s The Secret Life of Midges supports findings that some people do get bitten less, it’s a genetic trait and it is connected with smell.  Not sure whether to be pleased or not now.

Scottish Natural Heritage recommend that “The best method to avoid being bitten.. is to use a repellent and to recognise the conditions when midges are most likely to be active and avoid going out in them”. At Lochranza, we rarely notice midges before June or after the middle of September. According to SNH there are two annual peaks of midge activity, one in early summer and one in late summer; one of those must have occurred here on June 7th. We’d had a heatwave for three weeks and that particular day was unusually sticky and humid. The campsite was very busy so the washrooms were as full of moisture as the Botanic Gardens whilst the windows and doors were open to let the air in. Result: midge heaven! Next morning Nigel and I were confronted with an extensive clean-up job of dead midge bodies, like tiny black grains of sand, stuck to the walls and sinks. We’re relieved to report that we haven’t had another challenge like that since.

A first experience of the miniature acupuncture that is the tiny pin-prick nips of the midge can be the worst. Their biggest impact on human life seems to be on windless, warm summer evenings when they make it difficult to sit outside.  Sitting by a smoky campfire on the beach can be a solution as is going for an evening walk- you can move faster than they can. Covering up your skin is a good idea, but be aware that midges find their way to your tender exposed bits such as eyelids and ear lobes. Many retail outlets on Arran, including ourselves, sell effective midge repellents (with natural ingredients) and midge nets. Different products work for different people. A head net in your camping kit makes sense for times when the wind has dropped, you’re cooking outside on your camping stove and a cloud of midges is rising as one from the ground. 

There is scope for more scientific research still to be done on midges and their role in Highland ecosystems, especially in terms of what they eat and what eats them. It is known that they live in boggy, damp land, stay close to their breeding sites and that it is only the breeding females that sometimes require a blood meal. One of my observations is that whenever we get a Trip Advisor review that mentions midges (not too often thankfully) it has always been when the site is full and the weather fine. I suppose both campers and midges emerge more in good weather but are fair-weather campers more likely to complain about midges? Could it be that there are more people in tents (and more vulnerable to midges) rather than in vans in good weather? Is the smell of a lot of human bodies in one place a powerful draw to midges?

Would the world be better without midges, ticks, fleas, maggots, wasps and other detested insects? Only for we human beings probably.  In fact a Scottish summer without them to me would be strange. They belong amongst the heather and the bracken, the peaty pools and the bubbling burns. But if you really can’t bear the thought of them there’s always midge- free Spring and Autumn to pay a visit to Scotland.

 We're encouraging bugs at Lochranza Campsite! Kev has been building and placing these bug hotels around the site. Find out more on Kev's Lochranza Golf facebook page.

Even when it's not midgey, we love these midge candles by Totally Herby. They smell lovely and the pillar candles really do last for the 40 hours that's promised.

SNH Information and Advisory Note Number 290
‘Biting midges in Scotland’