Entomology (Study of Bugs)/Mystery bite


QUESTION: Hello experts,
First I apologize for lack of a picture - I too am a biologist, a systematist, so I understand the value of visuals, but if I had the bug I would know how to identify it. However, this is serious because I am developing a serious reaction to an unknown entity that I never see. My work and life are largely outdoors so this is a serious problem.  Here are the facts:
*Bitten or stung in the same way a handful of times over the last 5 years and it is always the same.
*Bites occur from mid-day to 9 pm EST, hot days (June/July), tidewater VA, usually when doing yard work (I live on the border of a large wooded area near salt and fresh water).  They have occurred on my back, shoulder and neck (once when I stepped outside on our raised patio at 9 pm).
*The sensation is a building prickly, burning, stinging (like a little thorn) that has intermittent stinging/burning.  Hurts like fire if I spray myself with DEET afterward tried that once.  The stinging quickly gives way (10 minutes) to tremendous itching for days. Nothing is ever noticeably flying around me or on me. It has occurred on exposed skin as well as under a shirt.
*I am systematically sensitive.  I swell up locally instantly and then proceed to body hives, usually somewhat regional but away from the bite site.  I end up in emergency rooms, or wait it out with my arsenal of drugs.
*When the swelling goes down, I can clearly see clusters of bites near the afflicted area, sometimes 6 or so, surrounded by irregular reddened swollen areas the size of a nickle.  They NEVER have a clear puncture point so I am inclined to think this is not a sting.  I can however, find "center areas" that are more clearly raised and have a somewhat flattened top.  There are never any white centers like the pictures of fire ant stings.
*I am inclined to think Dipteran.  What do you think?  Id appreciate an expert hypothesis.

ANSWER: Dear Martha - The only biting insect that I can think of that might be responsible would be a biting midge in the family Ceratopogonidae (often called punkies or no-see-ums). Of all the critters that have bitten/fed upon me over the years, these little buggers have caused me the greatest discomfort. See http://tinyurl.com/ppolub and http://tinyurl.com/6n3ue6m for more detailed information and see if this possibility seems likely to you. Have you tried applying DEET prior to venturing outside? If you have and still experiences the biting sensations, the cause could be something other than biting flies of any kind; in which case if you haven't already done so, I suggest that you consult an allergist/dermatologist to see if a cause can be determined.

Hope this helps,

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------


Thank you for your reply.  I get bitten by our conventional no-see-ums on a regular basis, almost daily; they don't hold a candle to the burning of this bite nor my reaction to it. However, I may not be aware of the full plethora of critters called no-see-ums.  Do you have any idea of the numbers of no-see-um species species that might be in my area (Tidewater, VA)? Are they related (e.g., same genus) or simply a description of small biting Dipterans? I suppose there could be a rare no-see-um out there(this has only happened a handful of times in 5 years). This would explain why I haven't seen-um!  I used DEET during the last bite, but only on exposed areas.  I've learned my lesson and will now spray my clothes. Yes, an allergist is warranted. But, I have a feeling that we simply don't know enough about these bugs.  The world needs more entomologists.


Dear Martha - The terms punkies and no-see-ums strictly refer to the biting midges in the family Ceratopogonidae. There are at least 35 species known from Virginia (see http://tinyurl.com/p6oeor6), but I am unaware of any significant differences in the severity of their bites. The only other biting arthropods small enough to escape casual observation are some mites that are parasitic on oak leaf gall insects, but their bites are not immediately painful, and thus would seem an unlikely suspect in your case - see http://tinyurl.com/o52w2l8 for details. I still believe that your best bet is a medical consultation.

Entomology (Study of Bugs)

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Ed Saugstad


Will accept most questions in general entomology, including those related to medical entomology, taxonomy, ecology, arthropod surveillance, and pest management. If you are requesting a 'mystery bug' identification, PLEASE either attach an image to your question, or post an image on a web page (such as Flickr) so that I can look at it, as verbal descriptions frequently are insufficient for a definitive identification.


21 years in the U.S. Army as a medical entomologist; duties varied from surveillance of pest populations (including mosquitoes, cockroaches, ticks, and stored products pests) to conducting research on mosquito-virus ecological relationships and mosquito faunal studies. Ten years as a civilian analyst for the Department of Defense, primarily on distribution of vector-borne diseases worldwide. Limited experience on surveillance of agricultural insects in North Dakota and Indiana.

Entomological Society of America, West Virginia Entomological Society, Society for Vector Ecology, National Speleological Society, West Virginia Association for Cave Studies.

American Journal of Public Health, Contributions of the American Entomological Institute, Japanese Journal of Sanitary Zoology, Journal of Economic Entomology, Mosquito News, and Mosquito Systematics.

B.S. in entomology from North Dakota State University in 1963, M.S. in entomology from Purdue University in 1967.

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