Information about midges for people planning to hike the West Highland Way. What’s the best time of year to hike to avoid midges? What can you do to deter them on the trail? We answer these and more in the article.
Midge, Midges, *****er, flying littles s****s, you might know them by many names, but what they actually are is the Scottish Midge. As you read this, you might feel the tickle of them waking through your hair (sorry for that 😅). As much as you might hate them, they are part of the reason for the beautiful wild scenery. The great thing about the midge, is that people tend not to live where they live for the very same reason that you hate them!
What are Scottish Midges?
The midge is a well-known foe of many a hiker or an outdoor worker and for the west highland way they are especially notorious. While there are over 4000 species of midges, of the 30 or so species of biting midges found in Scotland, the main culprit for bites are the Culicoides impunctatus.
Midges are just one to three millimeters in size but when clouds of them congregate mid-air they are a force to be reckoned with and it is the female of the species that is deadlier than the male, seeking blood to enable them to mature their eggs.
Where do they live?
The eggs of the midges are found in damp areas such as the edges of lakes, wet soil and bogs. They have been here since the summer months and will remain there for months and then emerge in the following spring~~. They won’t stray too far from the surrounding area and are rarely found further than 1 kilometer from the breeding ground, relying on a gentle breeze to assist them.** Their life span at this stage of their life cycle is very short – a matter of days.
When can you avoid them?
They tend to increase in numbers from May onwards and after October they should not trouble you. They are happiest with still, humid weather. Other things that you should know are that they are most active in the early mornings and in the evening as they don’t like bright sunlight~. Also, they are not much of a threat in the breeze, this is because in even the slightest breeze they won’t be able to fly. In fact, a wind speed of more than 6 miles per hour inhibits their flight and where the humidity is lower than 60% they are also rendered inactive^^. This means when you are on higher grounds, the breeze should keep them away.
Are they just here to bite me! Why do they exist?
Midges will be consumed by fish when on the water surface and birds and bats during the next part of their life cycle. They also serve to inform us about the level of pollution in water – by monitoring the levels of certain species of midges in water, scientists can establish if it is healthy or contaminated.
Do some people attract midges more than others?
Do you ever think you attract these midges while your walking companion is getting off lightly? Perhaps you are not imagining this. In fact, experiments have shown that some people produce natural repellents and therefore have their own built in defense*. Similar evidence exists for malaria and Zika virus where some people produce natural repellents for the mosquitoes carrying these deadly viruses.
What are the bites like?
You will not see the midges actually biting you due to their small size but afterwards you may notice the characteristic small red lumps that are swollen and itchy. Applying some anti-histamine can help to reduce these symptoms.
How do you stop them biting in the first place?
There are a number of steps you can take to stop midges from biting you in the first place. Long sleeve t-shirts or hiking pants (particularly of a lighter colour) will stop the midges as they can’t bite through clothing but that’s not to say they won’t try crawl up the sleeves! A good repellent will serve you well also.
Many favour DEET sprays and some of the latest formulations of these use lower concentrations of this insect repelling chemical. There are also some DEET free options with good reviews for the popular Smidge spray. Since the midges are attracted to the carbon dioxide that we expire, smidge spray affects their carbon dioxide receptors making it harder for them to seek you out! Importantly, with the exertion of hiking, it is likely that you will need to re-apply your repellent throughout the day.
Scotland, a midges heaven (and a hikers too)!
So the Scottish highlands with it’s damp conditions, long rushes and plentiful moss provides hospitable conditions for these pests. Hopefully you are a little bit wiser about how to protect yourself but bear in mind these midges have been upsetting humans for a long time. Queen Victoria supposedly smoked cigarettes during her highland jaunts to repel these enemies!***