Beat the bugs – midges

Midge: Culicoides_impunctatusWhen you’re out in the countryside, particularly if you’re camping, it’s impossible to avoid midges and mosquitoes. These types of insect are an important part of our ecosystem, and there are trillions of them, but you may be tempted to forget this when you’re under attack.

The best you can do is to employ some kind of skin protection, stay away from the type of habitat and conditions that midges like, and know how to deal with bites you might get. Learning a bit about why midges bite, and what attracts them can also help you plan your avoidance strategy.

What are midges?

Known as meanbh-chuileag in Gaelic (meaning ‘tiny fly’), midges are about one millimetre long, and therefore almost invisible. Female midges bite us because they need blood to help form their eggs, and are attracted to us by carbon dioxide in our breath and the smell of our natural body odour and sweat. Oddly, not everyone seems as appetising to midges, probably due to differences in our diet, sweat, breath and skin type.

You would think that a cold Scottish winter would kill off insect larvae, but the opposite is true; the dreaded midge hides under a blanket of insulating snow, although long, warm and wet summers can lead to them breeding even more than usual.

Midges are everywhere, but tend to more prevalent in parts of the Scottish Highlands, Western Isles, Peak District, Northumberland and the Lake District. Midges come out at dawn and dusk when the light is at its lowest. They prefer damp conditions, the edges of lakes, rivers, marshes and boggy areas, wind speed under around 7mph, thick vegetation and overcast weather.

Midges will sometimes put a dampener on an otherwise idyllic summer day out or camping holiday, especially if they start to swarm, but you can take measures to prevent them spoiling your time outdoors.

How to avoid midge bites

There are numerous tactics people use to keep midges away or to prevent them from biting. Here are some of the suggestions from a poll on our Facebook page, along with some ideas from our own tireless research, and most of them apply to mosquitoes and certain other smaller biting insects as well.

Scottish midge. This may not be an accurate artists impression

This may not be an accurate artists impression

Natural midge repellents

  • Citrus, lemon, citronella oil or candles – flying and biting insects are supposed hate the smell of citrus
  • Bog myrtle
  • White tea tree
  • Witch hazel
  • Lavender
  • Garlic – odourless garlic tablets should taken for about a week before any possible midge encounters.
  • Mosquito coils – you can hang these on a tree at a safe distance from camp and the smoke will deter most flying bugs.
  • Lifesystems natural repellent
  • Zam-Buk – herbal balm and ointment
  • Yeast tablets, or yeast in the blood from drinking beer
  • Vitamin B1 tablets or Marmite – not a repellent, but may reduce bites
  • Clothing with integral repelling properties are now on the market
  • Natural body smells – don’t wash, or use shampoo, scent or aftershave, but this may cause concern for your fellow campers!
  • Face nets, mosquito nets and zipped up inner tents with mesh – keep covered up if you can.
  • Mozzie zappers – these tend to be battery-powered lights that lure the unsuspecting bugs to their doom, effectively frying them on the hot metal mesh.

If you have field tested any of these why not let us know in the comments…


Chemical-based midge repellents

Most insect repellent sprays, creams, roll-on sticks and lotions include the chemical compound Diethyl-meta-toluamide, commonly known as DEET, which was developed by the US Army for jungle warfare during World War II and South East Asia. There are a number of DEET-free repellents such as the new Scottish wonder spray ‘Smidge-that-Midge’ that are very effective, and some which can be sprayed directly onto clothing.

  • Popular insect repellents include: Jungle Formula, Mossigard, Zumbuk, Landers Outdoor World and Lifesystems. Be aware that if you apply to your forehead they can sting your eyes and may cause skin irritation.
  • Avon ‘Skin So Soft’ spray-on moisturising lotion (blue bottle). This is often cited as an effective repellent, although it’s not designed to be so, but is apparently being tested by the British Army as an insect repellent. The spray can dry off quickly, so you need to apply frequently, and being oil-based can lead to sunburn if you don’t use sunscreen first. Other scented moisture creams and sun cream may also have some repellent effects.
  • Fly sprays – usually packed with chemicals and not something you want to spray around inside a tent, however fly killer sprays do have their uses to get rid of unwelcome visitors.


How to treat midge and mosquito bites

Bite marks will usually be small but itchy, often leading to swelling and can lead to other complications. In most cases the skin irritation caused by midge bites will just go away, and mosquito bites will leave a red inflamed area which is very uncomfortable, but will recede given a week or so.

Antihistamines such as Piriteze, Autan and Anthisan are useful because they rapidly calm down the itch and reduce the red lumps that cause the itch in the first place.

Clicker devices give the bite-site on your skin a tiny electric charge that helps neutralise the pain. You just click the small plastic device over the troublesome area.

Bites can leave scars, and in a midge swarm there are likely to be around 40 thousand midges landing on your skin at any time, so it’s important to minimise the skin damage afterwards with antihistamines, creams and in some cases antibiotics to fight any infection. You should always be aware of any deterioration of general health because it can signal an allergic reaction to the midge bites (known as anaphylaxis).

Target practice

If you’ve been troubled by midges you might like to let off some steam by getting in some midge target practice in Armidgegeddon, the BBC midge-squashing game.
Further information

Scottish Midge Forecast – Gives midge severity ratings
How to avoid midge misery (BBC Scotland)

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3 Responses

  1. Gordon

    Hi Jonathan,
    In the Lakes at the moment are some insects that look like very large ( African size!), mosquitos.
    They are attracted by the light in the tent at night. ( Wild camping)
    They do not bite.
    When squashed, they are vividly black.
    They like to hang on the underside/top of the tent material.
    Any ideas what they may be please?

  2. John Salvage

    I recently got bitten multiple times. Although it is October, it was more Spring like. They always make a “bee line”, excuse the pun, and yesterday, I experienced flue like symptoms, and was extremely warm headed, lethargic, and felt pains in my groin, head, and eyes. We were in the Shropshire/Worcestershire rural walking areas.

  3. Richard Handscombe

    I just returned from the Western Lakes close to Muncaster with more than 100 bites on each leg. … didn’t know about midges and now I do! Do all you can to protect yourself, because this is incredibly uncomfortable!

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