Swat in Hell

something really bugs me about summer in Wisconsin

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Serena Wagner

I have hairy forearms. You wouldn’t stare at them if you were seated next to me at a restaurant or anything, but close inspection, you’d discover I maintain a robust, masculine forest or arm follicles. The same is true for my legs. So if I’m sporting a T-shirt-n-shorts combo, I’ve got plenty of hair out there, a-blowin’ in the elements. And it’s not just my wife who loves it.

Gnats love it, too.

It started late in high school, when I got a summer job landscaping the fine lawns and flowerbeds of Eau Claire. Before then, I’d never really thought much about gnats. But here I was, roaming helplessly into their territory, a place before which I’d really never traveled.

Outside.

I’d been happy to spend most of my teenage summers locked away in air conditioned family rooms, watching insane amounts of cartoons and ’70s cop shows. But now here I was, out in the hot-hot sun, sweating, working, and tramping through the humid Wisconsin swelter – right where gnats love conducting gnatty business.

And as soon as they saw me coming, they switched to a new gnatty business plan: getting trapped in my arm and leg hair and biting me repeatedly until I died of blood loss.

The word “gnat” usually refers to any number of different “black fly” species, all of them tiny, all of them despicable. To me, their defining feature is how they love to swarm about one’s head until you’re grumpy enough to punch a tree trunk.

The word “gnat” usually refers to any number of different “black fly” species, all of them tiny, all of them despicable. To me, their defining feature is how they love to swarm about one’s head until you’re grumpy enough to punch a tree trunk.

To learn more about gnats and how their despicable little lives fit into the circle of life, I studied (another word for “skimmed”) multiple (another word for “two”) entomological profiles on small black flies. I discovered that, according to scientific observation, gnats and other small, biting, winged bugs serve the significant ecological purpose of annoying the living hell out of Mike Paulus. This is an easily observable phenomena, and I’ve yet to meet a scientist who disagrees.

Speaking of scientists, a few years back, UW-Madison entomologist Phil Pellitteri talked to Madison.com about Simuliidae – a particularly nasty breed of gnat. Some gnats are content to simply swarm one’s handsome face and head, occasionally shooting up your nose, down your throat, or into your eyes. But members of the Simuliidae family want to hurt you. They’ll keep biting until they get what they want.

“They kind of stab you multiple times,” Pellitteri said. “They’re trying to get you to bleed.”

I’ve seen their “bite” described as “sawing” or “hacking,” as if they’re tiny lumberjacks who never got proper tiny lumberjack training and they’re drunk. They buzz around you like a hammered frat boy on Water Street, thwacking the front of each bar until liquid gushes out. They’re like really dumb things doing really dumb stuff that hurt good people and animals and they need die, all of them. Die and explode in a ball of white hot fire.

But enough with the graceful metaphors.

Their favorite hackin’ spot is your hairline and behind your ears. But as I learned back when I was landscaping, they don’t stop at your head. They’d get tangled in my aforementioned body hair and in lieu of escape, they’d feast.   

They’d bite me over and over and over, and I’d slap myself silly to crush their wretched little bodies. Gnats tend to swarm right before it rains, so if you see me shambling down the street, my exposed limbs caked with my own blood and a few pounds of squashed bug guts – break out your umbrella.

Even though I no longer landscape, to this day, and all summer long, the gnats continue to bother me. Some people’s body chemistry makes them more attractive to bugs yearning for a “blood meal,” and I might be one of them, I don’t know. All I can say for sure is they love swarming me until I look like a horror movie monster.

Things could be worse, I know. But people – the view from inside the swarm-hole ain’t pretty. Autumn may be on its way, but I can’t see beyond this wall of writhing black flies.

Send help. Send hope. Send Deep Woods Off for sensitive skin.

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