Scotland’s midge problem – everything you need to know about the Highland menace
The Highland midge. Nemesis to Scotland’s tourists and bane of campers and walkers across the country.
These horrendous wee beasties can be found right across the west coast and the Highlands of Scotland in swarming clouds that have caused even more misery to the populace than our changeable climate.
They’ve been known to bring grown men to tears and have cut-short countless holidays, yet if you ask most international visitors about them they’ll likely tell you they don’t know you’re talking about.
That’s bad news for tourists and good news for the midges, because anyone who ventures into the great outdoors unprepared will inevitably get eaten alive by the little blood-suckers.
Scotland isn’t alone in the world for having midges but we do seem to suffer from them more than most, possibly due to the fact that tourism plays such a big part of our economy.
Those beautiful photos plastered all over the internet of our mountains and glens make you want to whip your credit card out and book a summer Highland holiday, right? And who’s going to tell you about the downsides to visiting Scotland in summer when they’re about to earn a nice juicy profit from the holiday they’re advertising?
So with that in mind, in this article I’m going to try to redress this apparent lack of information by telling you everything you need to know about the Highland midge.
You probably won’t be able to escape them entirely, but at least you’ll have a better understanding of how to deal with them when you get here.
Midges in Scotland – what are they?
If you’re reading this in the US and you’re wondering what a midge is you’ll no doubt know them as ‘no-see-ums’ (congratulations by the way on having a much better name for them than we do. No-see-ums. A perfect description!).
These insects are part of the Ceratopogonidae family of biting flies and they exist on every continent on earth except for those places that are either too cold (like the north and south poles) or too hot (like the permanent deserts of North Africa).
Size-wise they’re tiny (hence the no-see-um name) and are generally only 1 to 3 mm in length, but don’t let their size fool you because they pack one hell of a punch with their bite.
It’s actually only the females that do the biting (I’m sure there’s a joke in there somewhere) and they’re happy to munch on any vertebrate whether it’s cows, sheep or people.
While the males of the species like to chow down on dead plant matter, females need protein to prepare for their egg-laying – which they do in vast amounts.
We have 37 species of midge here in Scotland but the most prevalent is C. impunctatus which loves laying its eggs in wet soil, something we’re not exactly short of in this country.
While it’s obviously impossible to accurately gauge their numbers several studies have estimated that for every 2 square metres of ground there will be half a million eggs, so across the known areas where Scotland’s midges have been found there could be up to 181 TRILLION of them!
You’ll get a good idea of the size of these swarms if you go romping about the countryside at dawn and dusk when they’re most active, especially if you don’t protect yourself.
To be honest it’s difficult to describe just how bad they are if you’ve never been to Scotland in the summer but let me warn you they tend to get everywhere. In your ears, in your hair, down the back of your shirt, just everywhere.
They are, as I mentioned at the beginning, a real highland menace.
Where will I find Scottish midges?
The greatest numbers of midges are to be found in the West Highlands as that’s where you’ll find their favourite habitats.
Thanks to the dense low-lying plants that thrive in Scotland’s remotest regions the ground underfoot is mostly damp and boggy which is the perfect condition for the females to lay their eggs.
You’ll also find them on the north coast and all along the west coast, but because the wind tends to be stronger on the coastline there’s a good chance you won’t be affected by them too much there.
The very worst places to get bitten are those that are close to their breeding grounds and females have been found up to a mile away from their broods. You’ll also find them in their greatest numbers close to their food source, so basically anywhere there are sheep, cattle and deer – which roam right across the Highlands.
If you take anything away from this article remember that if you head anywhere that’s exposed to the wind there’s a much lower chance of getting bothered by the wee menaces than there is in sheltered locations like a glen.
You’ll also hardly ever see them once you reach elevations of 1500 feet or more so you might consider moving the mountain climbing/coast-walking sections of your Scotland itinerary higher up your list.
But if you want to escape them completely then I advise you to head to Scotland’s east coast as they’re rarely seen around there, especially the south-east towards Edinburgh.
In fact, I can confirm this is indeed true because I live in East Lothian on Scotland’s south-east coast and I’ve never been bothered by midges, even when walking through the countryside at their favourite time of day.
If you want to find out more about visiting East Lothian (whether it’s to escape the midges or not), check out my Complete Guide to Places to Visit in East Lothian.
When is the midge season in Scotland?
Quick answer – May to September.
Long answer – it depends on the climate each year because unfavourable weather (for midges) will delay their emergence, but I’m afraid you’re guaranteed to find swarms of them in the height of summer no matter what the elements are doing.
If the weather is humid and still the number of midges will skyrocket which is made even worse if Scotland has a wet summer (which it often does). In fact, it’s not unknown for midges to torment visitors well into early autumn if the conditions are in their favour.
Thankfully for those of us that live in Scotland we can avoid midge season by exploring the countryside when they’re lying dormant, however, if you’re coming here between June and August for your holiday you’re just going to have to put up with them.
I really can’t stress enough how bad the midge swarms are in the Highlands except to say it’s such a problem that it accounts for a major loss to the nation’s economy due to the fact that outside workers find it almost impossible to get anything done when the midges are out in force.
During midge season the Scottish Forestry Authority estimates that 20% of working days are lost due to midge attacks but this probably pales into insignificance when compared to the impact on tourism.
One estimation is that Scotland’s tourism industry loses up to £270 million each year due to people staying away. Yes, they really are that much of an irritation, but continue reading and I’ll show you how you needn’t be one of the unlucky ones that have their holiday ruined by these biting insects.
The midge lifecycle
The Scottish midge follows a predictable breeding pattern where you’ll start to see them at the end of May and they’ll start dying off in September – basically right in the middle of your summer holidays. Meanwhile, the females are laying more broods ready to annoy the sightseeing plans of the following year’s tourists.
When summer’s nearly over the eggs hatch and the larvae dig down into the soil a few centimetres for protection against the harsh Scottish winter climate. They then move up and down through the soil looking for organic debris to eat which will keep them going until they’re ready to emerge again in May.
As soon as May hits (how do they know it’s May anyway? Do they have calendar notifications on their little midge iPhones?) the larvae pupate for 24 to 48 hours, after which the adult males emerge, followed shortly after by the females.
Depending on the weather there will be a second or third generation roughly 6 weeks apart and after the males have mated they’ll die off, leaving the bitey females behind to lay their eggs across Scotland’s boggy, wet ground.
That first batch is produced using the female midges own protein reserves, but if there are to be any more broods she’ll need more protein, and that’s when they start hunting for sources of blood – i.e. you and me.
Thankfully the bite-a-thon declines once the temperature starts to fall so you’ll rarely be bothered by them once autumn comes along because the females die off from the cold. Unfortunately, their trillions of offspring are quietly waiting underground ready to emerge once the temperatures rise again, at which time the entire life-cycle repeats.
Take a look at this list for a broken-down version of events.
- In mid-May, the male midges emerge from the topsoil layer after their long winter hiding from the cold.
- 7 days later the females appear, they find the males, mate, and the males then disappear. That’s basically a Saturday night where I’m from.
- In another week the eggs mature and hatch into soil-dwelling larvae.
- The larvae go through 3 stages until they pupate into adult vampiric evil bloodsuckers.
- Females lay another 2 batches of eggs with around 200 eggs per brood depending on the weather conditions.
- The females die off in late September.
- The larvae from each generation bury themselves underground to hide from the winter and re-emerge the following May, ready to continue the life cycle.
Scottish weather and midges
There are certain weather conditions that are favourable to Scotland’s midges and others that will drastically reduce their numbers, but as our weather is so unpredictable it’s almost impossible to guess how much of an impact the elements will have on the wee beasties.
Basically, if the weather is mild and damp then expect to get bitten, but if it’s hot and dry you can be relatively well assured that their numbers will be low as they hate blazing sunshine.
Unfortunately, this is Scotland and blazing sunshine is about as rare as flying pigs or hen’s teeth, but at least you can avoid heading out into the Highlands when the weather favours the little buggers.
Keep the following information in mind the next time you venture outdoors.
Midges LOVE these weather conditions:
- No breeze, or at least any windspeed under 5mph (8km/h). Anything over that and the wee blighters struggle to take off.
- Dawn, dusk and when there’s cloud cover. Midges don’t like it when it’s hot so they’ll be more active when the sun is obscured by clouds (which happens a lot in Scotland).
- Warm and damp weather in the Spring when you’ll find the first generation of the year’s midges arrive.
- Warm and damp weather in early Autumn when the third generation of midges hatch.
Midges HATE these weather conditions.
- Windy days. Thankfully it’s generally windy in Scotland, especially in the higher regions. Midges can’t fly when the wind is above 7mph (11km/h).
- A cold and dry Spring means the hatching of the first generation of midges is delayed. Rejoice!
- Hot, sunny days. Direct, unobscured sunlight makes midges much less active which is why you’ll hardly ever see them on a sunny afternoon.
- A dry and hot June and July will drastically reduce the number that survives in the second generation.
Hit the next page button below to read part 2.
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