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Eaten Alive

Alaskans who make a living outdoors tell the most frightening bug stories

(Lifestyles, July 23, 2000)

By Holly M. Sanders
Daily News Reporter

Alaska's mosquito population is the stuff of legend. Biologists relate with little skepticism tales of voracious swarms draining newborn caribou calves dry. Outdoor guides delight in telling tourists the one-hand, one-slap record for bug deaths (73!).

And then there are the postcards that proudly proclaim the mosquito the state bird (it's really the ptarmigan).

Lost in all this bug lore is one simple fact: This great frontier is home to more swarms of biblical proportions than mosquitoes. There are other buzzing things -- uncannily proficient at self-defense and survival -- that are equally capable of biting us.

No one knows this better than those whose occupations require them to work outdoors. Every summer, these brave souls, armed only with DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide) and netting, encounter insect hordes.

Biologists, wildfire fighters, park rangers, guides and outdoor writers, to name a few, tell stories that can make the rest of us blanch.

Of course, there are routine tales about the mosquito population and its annual bloodsucking orgy. But victims also tell of carnivorous black flies that crawl frantically up shirt sleeves and pant legs in search of flesh and biting flies so small they can slip through tent netting and take tiny chunks out of their sleep-deprived hosts all night.

And then there are those stories that make you want go eeewwaahhh! -- sort of a cross between disgust and abject terror.

A few summers ago, for instance, Kim Mincer was fighting a fire in the wilderness south of the Brooks Range. Aside from the fire, she and the other crew members found themselves battling clouds of bloodthirsty black flies.

After a particularly tough day digging trenches, setting back-burns and swatting bugs, they collapsed in their sleeping bags. One crewman -- a hotshot -- was so exhausted that he didn't wake up when a black fly crawled into his ear.

The vindictive bug ''chewed him up a little bit.'' When he finally woke up from the pain, he had to seek medical treatment, Mincer said. So when she heard the same telltale buzzing in her ear later that day, she took action.

In an attempt to drown the bug, she poured water directly into her ear despite warnings from crew members who thought it unsafe.

''Whatever,'' she said. ''It got rid of it.''


There are those who fight off bugs, and then there are those who court them.

Scott Armbruster, a research professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has trekked from Australia to Brazil to Southeast Asia to peer at insects through a magnifying glass.

Armbruster and other bug experts believe that Alaska is home to four families of biting insects: mosquitoes (family culicidae), black flies (simuliidae), punkies (ceratopogonidae) and deer and horse flies (tabanidae). They are known by less-than-scientific names as well. Punkies, for instance, are commonly called ''no-see-ums'' or ''biting midges.''

Regardless, these denizens of the great outdoors fall into the insect order diptera, known commonly as flies. They have several physical traits in common, such as two sets of wings and large compound eyes. But the most important, and disturbing, characteristic is their mouthparts, which are ideal for piercing the skin and sucking out fluids.

Interestingly, no one has written an authoritative text on Alaska's insects.

Experts disagree on the number of mosquito species -- they place the figure somewhere between 10 and 25. There are at least two species of black fly.

Compared with many other parts of the world, Alaska has fewer varieties of insidious biting insects, Armbruster said. (His worst experience was a chigger attack in Mexico that caused mild anaphylactic shock.) But he said that no territory, state or country beats Alaska when it comes to the sheer numbers of bugs.

''The population size is worse than anything else anywhere,'' he said. ''I've never seen swarms like those here.''


In Alaska, mosquitoes are by far the most prevalent bugs, which is why they remain lord of the flies. Every year, they congregate in hordes that are thickest from the Yukon River north to the Arctic Ocean.

Greg Balogh, an endangered-species biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage, said dealing with them on the job is ''truly a mental game.'' He said he has seen crew members bug out from the constant buzzing.

That explains why people who work outdoors become methodical -- almost fanatical -- in dealing with bugs. Some douse themselves with super-concentrated DEET; others pile on layers of protective clothing; still others invest in a mosquito head net.

Balogh is perhaps more tolerant of mosquitoes than others. He dislikes DEET because of fears about its toxicity, and netting obscures his vision. He avoided both during his first trek to the North Slope.

Halfway through summer, he asked his colleagues how many times they were being bitten during an average day. About a dozen times, they answered. And Balogh? He figured about 150 times a day.

''The only reason I stayed up there was that I don't react at all to mosquito bites,'' he said.


Bug experts say mosquitoes are easy to deal with compared with the black fly. These squat flies with large, rounded wings and a distinctive humpback shape tend to congregate in forested areas and along waterways.

Many people are allergic to their bite, which can itch for days, sometimes weeks. Ed Holsten, an entomologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Anchorage, said he has received calls from doctors as far flung as Texas who have seen patients suffering from bites long after their vacation was over.

Black flies are unusually sneaky and persistent. Unlike mosquitoes, they like to crawl around in search of the choicest bites. Their specialty is getting into areas where clothing is tight, like inside your shirt or under your hat band.

''You don't expect to swat a mosquito off those spots,'' Holsten said. ''Mosquitoes land and never crawl around.''

A couple of years ago, Jake Schlapfer and a colleague were traveling down the Unalakleet River about 400 miles northwest of Anchorage. An outdoor recreation planner for the federal Bureau of Land Management, Schlapfer checks on the condition of rivers and nearby recreational areas.

It was hot, and the river banks were teeming with more black flies than he had ever seen. The hordes were so thick that the men duct-taped their sleeves and pants to their wrists and ankles to prevent the bugs from taking up residence inside their clothes.

The men, like the flies, were hungry and decided to catch their dinner. Schlapfer dropped a line and quickly caught a silver salmon. As it turned out, catching it was the easy part; eating it was another matter.

Schlapfer managed to fillet half the fish before the voracious black fly hordes swooped in, covering the carcass from head to tail.

''You couldn't even tell what color the meat was,'' he said.

He plunged the fish underwater, then kept it there while he finished cleaning it. The men quickly cooked it before retreating to their tent to eat. For the rest of the night, they watched the bugs crawl over the tent looking for a way to get inside.

Schlapfer, who claims to enjoy his job, recalls thinking: ''I don't get paid enough to do this.''


Some people could make the argument that Schlapfer was lucky. At least he could see the enemy. There are bugs you never know are there until you feel them chewing.

Punkies resemble a small mosquito. Their size allows them to bite you in places you would never suspect, like under the rim of your hat. They leave a diffuse welt about 20 times their size, making it even tougher to pinpoint them.

Roman Dial, a professor of environmental science at Alaska Pacific University and a former outdoors writer, recalls his encounter with these pests while on assignment.

He spent several days in the Brooks Range shooting pictures for a story on hiking. Before he embarked, he bought a tent that was guaranteed to keep out bugs.

It turned out to be false advertising. When he and his wife stopped to camp, they realized to their horror that swarms of no-see-ums had infiltrated the tent. They never saw them; they only felt them.

''You couldn't see them at all unless you looked really, really close,'' he said.

Like others who routinely brave the outdoors, Dial survived the experience. He has since had other magazine assignments and other close encounters with bugs.

But the story he most likes to tell is the time he mountain-biked across the North Slope during the hot season. On the last leg of the trip, he ran out of insect repellent and the enemy was swooping in for the kill.

He reached down to slap his calf, then looked at his hand. Despite the angry hordes, the oppressive heat and his waffled skin, he stopped to count the carcasses -- 84, a new record.

''I would really like to know if anyone has beaten it,'' he said.


Alaska's biting bugs fall into the order diptera, a prevalent group of insects known commonly as flies. Many possess two sets of wings, large compound eyes and, most disturbing, mouthparts that are ideal for piercing the skin and sucking out fluids. Among all of Alaska's delectable, blood-rich species, you are their favorite prey.


Family Culicidae

Slender, delicate flies with long legs and an even longer proboscis -- a needlelike snout that pierces the skin while injecting anticoagulant saliva to keep blood from clotting as it feeds. The itch of the bite is an allergic reaction to the saliva. These critters are best known for the biting habits of females, which must have a blood meal before they can produce eggs. They live in still or stagnant water, from lakes to bird feeders to old tires.

Black flies (aka white socks, buffalo gnats)

Family Simuliidae

Small, rather squat flies with large, rounded wings and a distinctive humpback shape. Most common are ''white socks,'' so-called because of the white stripes on their legs. Females bite and can be extremely annoying in forested areas. They are sneaky, crawling into such hard-to-reach spots as under watch bands or hat brims. The intensely itchy bite begins as a small, red dot in the middle of a slightly swollen area, then grows into a large, inflamed area.

Punkies (aka no-see-ums, biting midges)

Family Ceratopogonidae

Flies so small they can slip through head nets and tent flaps. Females bite fiercely, often making victims yelp from the pain. They fly in large numbers, usually in still, humid air. They tend to bite unprotected skin, as on the forehead, or where the skin is fairly soft. The bite looks like a red splotch rather than a distinct spot.


Family Tabanidae

Large flies with broad heads and bulging, often brightly colored eyes. Despite the name, females enjoy sucking blood from humans as well as deer. Unlike most other flies, their flight can be silent. They circle slowly over their intended victim, then land stealthily before delivering a painful bite. The bite resembles a circular, red welt.

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