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Sand gnats have many nicknames but a singular goal: annoyance | Medill | Washington
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Sand gnats have many nicknames but a singular goal: annoyance

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David Reed

The biting midge, or sand gnat, packs a more powerful bite than common mosquitoes.

WASHINGTON – Call them what you want: sand gnats, biting midges, sand fleas, sand flies, no-see-ums, peskies, or steel tooth; just call them an annoyance.

The sand gnat, that puny pest to Marine recruits at South Carolina’s famed Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, is having a particularly active spring season, according to local experts.

And to make matters worse, the salt marshes and shaded mangroves at the nation’s second oldest Marine post are the ideal locale for sand gnats, said James Clark, environmental compliance department manager at MCRD Parris Island.

Clark, who’s been at Parris Island since 1993, said mornings and evenings are the worst times to see swarms of “plentiful and voracious” sand gnats. “If you’re outside it’s miserable. They’ll just totally encrust your arm. They bite and they chew. It hurts a lot more than a mosquito bite,” he said.

That’s because the sand gnats have sword-like blades and teeth used to lacerate and tear flesh.

Typically Marine recruits are taught to endure the annoyance of the sand gnats as part of their training, according to Clark. But concerns over infected bites causing delays in training led to aerial insecticide sprays to attempt to control the gnats. The base called in a spray last week, and another is planned for next week. Clark said the insecticide has the added benefit of taking out mosquitoes.

Gregg Hunt, director of mosquito control for Beaufort County, said he’s not sure there’s a firm correlation between a bad sand gnats season and a hellacious mosquito season, but the bugs do share habitats. “Most of the biting midges originate from the vast acres of salt marshes, just like the mosquitoes do,” Hunt said.

Hunt said the region is expecting rainfall, rising temperatures, and high tides which create “optimal conditions for mosquitoes.” After every high tide, about once a month, we can almost predict that 10 to 14 days later we’re gonna have millions of mosquitoes,” Hunt said.

There are sprays that effectively deter sand gnats temporarily, but Hunt said the best deterrent is to avoid the outdoors during the early morning and evening. Hunt admits that’s something recruits can’t do. “The military, they have to endure.”

Even former Marines, like Les Brediger, director of military programs at the University of South Carolina Beaufort, said the gnats are memorable. “There’s just so many of them, they just swarm. Even one of them, they can really hurt. When you’ve got thousands of them, it can be a real test of character.”

Brediger, who completed his Marine training in 1970, recalled some drill sergeants used sand gnats as a tool. He remembered standing in a sand pit with gnats crawling in and out of his ears and all over his body. “It’s not funny when you’re going through it,” Brediger laughed, but he can see the comedy today.

The sand gnats are a definite part of the regional culture. Clark notes although the minor league baseball squad in nearby Savannah, Ga., has the Sand Gnat as a mascot, there is no love affair among locals. He said the mascot serves as a reminder of the sand gnat’s tenacity.

Clark noted that Marines can hold on to the fact that rising temperatures generally quell the spring swarm of the sand gnats, making them less of an issue as summer nears.

The bad news: Mosquitoes are on the way.

Fun factoids:
Adults sand gnats may be found as far as 5 km (3 miles) from their breeding sites.
The Spanish colonial records in Florida refer to sand fleas more than once, dating back to the 1600s, according to local historian Larry Rowland.
Adult sand gnats, at a size of 1-4 millimeters, can easily squeeze through window screens.

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