Posted Online: July 05, 2013, 8:52 pm

Bugged by gnats? Blame the rain for scores of swarms

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By Brigitte McCray,

How many gnats have you swallowed today?

Whether you've been barbecuing, biking, walking, running or just sitting and listening to the sounds of summer, you've probably swallowed a handful by now as they flit about in unusually large swarms this year.

Phil Nixon, extension entomologist with the University of Illinois, said the increase in fungus gnats is because of all the recent rainfall in the Quad-Cities. Adults lay eggs in decaying plants and dead leaves, and their larvae feed on the rotting vegetation conditions. These activities, he said, happen more in damper areas.

The gnats appear at the same time each year, a simple sign of the cycle of nature. He said that people in the Quad-Cities, where pavement covers much habitat, may notice them more than those in rural areas.

He added that people who neglect the outside until summer are also probably noticing them more, but outdoor enthusiasts who experience the seasons the most -- runners, walkers and cyclists -- are bugged by the gnats, too.

Randy Stach, an employee at Rock Island's Bike & Hike, said he rides the 20 miles from Geneseo and that the gnats have especially been bad along the Hennepin Canal bike path.

The bugs are attracted to the Mississippi River, too. On a recent day, they were so thick along the Rock Island bike path that a local runner had to keep swatting hands back and forth like propellers to keep the gnats from crawling into eyes and nostrils.

Charlie Paul, an employee at Running Wild, the local running specialty store on Brady Street in Davenport, said he tries to run along the river about once per week. The path is best when a breeze is blowing. According to Nixon, gnats do not have strong powers of flight, and a bit of breeze or a strong gust of wind will send the bugs flying away from a person.

In fact, Mr. Paul said if he doesn't stop running to rest or walk, he's able to work-out mostly bug free.

Mr. Nixon said scientists are unsure why gnats are attracted to upright objects like signs and people standing still. Keep moving, Mr. Paul advised runners, bikers and walkers. He added that he tries to get inside immediately after his run. Mr. Nixon said gnats are attracted to those who are perspiring.

Put the bug spray down, though. Insect repellants do not work on gnats. In fact, according to Mr. Nixon, "repellant" is an incorrect word. Mosquitoes, drawn to humans for their blood, are not repelled; instead, the spray masks us and confuses the mosquitoes' senses.

"Since gnats aren't looking to find us," Mr. Nixon said, "There's nothing to confuse them about."

Mr. Paul said that vanilla has worked to keep the gnats at bay when he's been out working in his yard. "It works better than nothing," he said.

That's not the only trick to try. Mr. Nixon said that folks out on their decks or patios at barbeques this holiday weekend could try a strong fan. Having a 16 inch fan blowing near the guests will keep the gnats from ruining the good time.

A small personal fan could also keep the bugs out of your face.

If you plan on biking, Mr. Stach suggested ski goggles and a simple dust mask. Those items will keep the gnats out of the eyes and nose, especially when the bugs are thick near the water. If you're willing to spend a bit of money, most bike stores have mesh bug shields for helmets, because "it's not fun when they're crawling around on your head." Also, cyclists could try riding in the late morning and noon hours, when gnats aren't swarming as much, he said.

Mr. Paul said that outdoor lovers should try out different routes. The best ones are those that have fewer trees and that aren't near the water. Pick places by trial and error, and once you find a route that is nearly bug free, stick to it, since the flying nuisances usually won't be there in the days and weeks to come. "Summer has beautiful weather, and you always want to enjoy it, but it's no fun when it's ruined by the bug issue," he said.