Friday, January 23, 2009

Of bites and men

Gentle readers,

Some of you, I know, are People of Science. You know things about the natural world, its ways and wonders. What is more, you have Method, and possibly Paradigms, old and new. One of you, at least, has had a letter published in New Scientist, about doing unspeakable things to a cane toad. So I come to you with a question of Science. My question is:
Why me?
Disregarding the obvious answer ("why not?") I shall provide some context.

Not so long ago, I spent a weekend with a good friend in Raglan. It was my birthday so my friend took me to a Reserve, one of those places full of Nature; by a babbling brook there we sat down, with a bottle of decent fizz, a quiche and various other goodies. And there I wept, when I was bitten by a thousand flying and biting insects.

Thus it is always every summer. I go to commune with Nature and Nature bites back. This occasion was especially bad. Again and again they came for me, heedless of my attempts to wipe out their entire population with my bare hands. Again and again they broke through my defences and found their target: my soft and succulent skin. By the end of the day's fighting, I had sustained extensive damage: I counted eighteen successful attacks on one forearm alone; and these were not mere bites but welts, the size of a two-dollar coin and the colour purple.

Meanwhile, my friend grazed nonchalantly, untroubled by insects or their bites. At one point she expressed doubt that midges bite at all.

So, why me? Why am I so delicious? Like me, my friend is caucasian, of a respectable age and lacking in obvious insect-repelling qualities. Yet she received no bites. Is it a guy thing? Do biting insects prefer the flesh of men? If so, could this preference explain what is going on in the scene above?

Answers on a postcard to the usual address, please.

Dr Feelgood:


Peter in Dundee said...

Ah Paul I know your pain for I am the same when in NZ, be it mossies or that voracious beastie the West Coast sandfly. I can relate however a similar tale to yours wrt my wife and myself whilst sitting outside in the gloaming in the West of Scotland during summer. She complained bitterly of being bitten by midges while I was apparently bothered not at all. About ten days later I noticed some small red marks on my lower legs, I felt nothing from them but they were evidence that I had been bitten. Why the difference?

Infant exposure and the immune system. I was hatched just south of Glasgow and spent my infant summers around Oban so will have been bitten by the Scottish midge on many occasions and early enough that my immune system recognises the bite as not a problem so does not react with a storm of histamine.

My wife is from the South Coast originally so was not so exposed to the midge, thus she reacts strongly. Just like us, your early development did not involve exposure to mosquito or sandfly whereas your friend's did. Rest assured that your friend was bitten as much as you, just suffered less. When bitten by a mossie the site reacts strongly and with much itchiness.

Having said that there may also be differences between people relating to things like skin pH which make some more attractive to such beasties in the first place. The Scottish midge for eg is attracted by exhaled CO2 and variations in emissions from people may underlie some differences in attention.

I am sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings in that there is nothing you can do except invest a good insect repellent.

Uroskin said...

Am an immigrant to NZ and the mozzie and sand fly bites are FEROCIOUS. The welts return even after a few days.
One day at Nudie Bay on Waiheke I was bitten on my foreskin and it swelled like a balloon itching like hell. One way of making a spectacle of yourself on a public beach!

Tom (also in Dundee) said...

I was not hatched in Scotland, but don't find the local midges more than usually noxious, tho I have friends who break out in enormous welts once a single one hoves into view.

Science is indeed a mysterious thing.

Robyn said...

I get bitten too! I once heard it was to do with how oily one's skin is.

Grace Dalley said...

Yes, I too wish to join the support group for the chronically bitten! If I know I am going somewhere particularly infested with biting insects I take vitamin B1 (thiamine) for 2 weeks before going, and also while away. I still get bitten a bit :-) but it seems to make me less tasty than usual.
I also find that a homemade concoction of oil of citronella and oil of eucalyptus repels most things, if I can be bothered to apply it. It smells a lot, but it's not an unpleasant smell, IMO.

Pablo said...

Paul, you should have consulted the gospel according to Rik for the explanation:

"He's bound to bite me first. I'm obviously the most succulent. Mr. Vampire! Mr. Vampire! Bite Neil...He's strawberry flavoured!"

Peter in the Ferry said...

Tom, midges in Dundee? where??? Are you in the steamy depths of Charleston or something? Out here in the Ferry I have never seen a midge in 10years of habitation here.

Have you been in the West of Scotland in August? I know people who love nothing other than hitting the highlands but stop going in mid July once the midges get going. There is a layer in Loch Ness and doubtless other lochs that is nothing other than shoulder to shoulder midge larvae. Add to that all the little pools in the heather bogs . . . Here in the East just can't compete.

Tom said...

To clarify: local meaning Scottish. I have also not experienced midges in Dundee (although I have seen and felt them over the river at Balmerino).

You are absolutely right: the west of Scotland from June to September is a cursed hellhole full of English tourists and Scottish midges. A perfect combination.

I often sea kayak in the west, and we are frequently confronted with the dilemma of stopping to land for a pee and risk the midges, or continuing midge free but unrelieved. It's a difficult choice. Luckily I tend to get small, non itchy spots rather than suffer the extreme reaction of some other people, so I can indulge my bladder with relatively little risk.

Danyl said...

Roughly 10% of the population is attractive to bloodsucking insects. Nobody knows why, although there are various theories about CO2 emmission, skin cholesterol, uric acid metabolism ect.

This is annoying most of the time and terrifying if you're in a region with endemic malaria and you're perpetually surrounded by a thick fog of mosquitos EVEN THOUGH YOU'RE DRENCHED IN DEET, while your wife and friends are unprotected and undisturbed.

Paul said...

One of the reasons why I live here is that our insects are mostly harmless.

Peter in Dundee, formerly Titirangi said...

"mostly harmless"

Said by an inner city dweller who has never had to encounter the mad beast that is the bush weta. Or I could relate for you the time as a teenager when I woke up and was about to put my foot in my slipper only to find an Avondale spider (Huntsman to the Aussies) had taken up residence. He only just had enough room.

Stay in Central Auckland Paul, never venture West.

david w said...

I'll see your bush weta and raise you a Poor Knights Centipede, not an insect per se but an arthropod that spends its evenings hunting geckos freaks me out. By all accounts their bite is excruciating.

(I don't have much to add about your phlebotomic flies. I did once wake up on an island that has dengue fever to find abut 8 of the fattest mosquito I'd ever seen perching on the inside of my mosquito net and my arms covered in welts, which was fun.)