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Country Gentleman: Blood-sucking insects leave their mark

Honeybees are seen crowded together around a tree hollow where the insects have built a nest. (Photo courtesy of the C.W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust)

Living in the Japanese countryside gives me an understanding, plus some sympathy for why so many people seem to freak out at the nearness of an insect. My wife screams if a shield beetle (kame mushi) or a moth comes anywhere near her. We have lots of those! Insects generally don't bother me, but I always take care to cover food, put it back in the refrigerator or keep lids on pots and jars. I also take care to quickly close doors at night. Actually, I find some moths just as beautiful as butterflies.

In summer, when I'm at Nagano Railway Station, I often see visitors, both Japanese and foreign, coming with backpacks and other outdoor regalia. It troubles me to see so many, especially young people, wearing shorts and short sleeves, or with either no socks or very short ones that expose their ankles. Even an old country uncle like me has yet to pick up the courage to go and warn a stranger to either change their dress or be prepared to use lots of insect repellent. In summer we have lots of mosquitoes and biting midges, especially in the mountains where you have lots of ponds and streams, the natural habitat of the larvae of these pests.

When we have our own guests I warn them about clothing, and we keep various kinds of insect repellents at home or at our trust center. In summer and early autumn I specifically warn against wearing black or dark clothes, because these may cause the hornets to mistake you for a bear and attack. If you have dark hair it's better to wear lightly colored headgear. Japan is the home of the biggest, most dangerous hornet of all, the "suzume bachi." Biologists have put up big colored balloons near hornet nests to test their reaction; scout hornets on patrol will always attack and pop the black balloons first. Big and black! Attack! Hey, it's swatting at us! Call out the guards!

More than any other, our biggest pests are "abu," or horse flies. Horse flies are the most diverse of all the blood-sucking insects. A particularly nasty one is the "akaushiabu." This insect has big compound eyes and a thick body, 25 to 30 millimeters long. Males are harmless, but the females need a feed of blood in order to produce eggs. It is no wonder that we call these insects "horse flies" in English, because from June to August they really bother our horses. They will also give humans a very painful bite, but we can cover up with clothing. They are attracted to carbon dioxide, dark shiny objects and movement.

If let out on a sunny morning our horses will charge around trying to get away from the irritating, painful bites. When trying to graze during the day the horses will be constantly swishing their tails or kicking at their own bellies. These horrible insects are attracted to soft, sensitive areas, like around the genitals. Usually the horses then come into the stables to get away. We humans feel terribly sorry for them and as annoyed as hell at the damn horse flies. Horse flies don't come out at night, so we are altering our schedules to adapt.

Of course we are doing our best to help and are getting all the advice we can. Insect repellants don't last long. Horses sweat a lot. We try light horse coverings, but the horse flies get under them, which can be even more irritating. We put up flytraps. We swat at the flies when they land on the horses.

Females lay eggs in a jelly on rocks or vegetation near water. The white maggots fall into water or onto wet ground. These develop into predatory larvae that eat snails, worms, other insect larvae and even small frogs. Eventually they crawl out to pupate on dry ground.

Horse flies like sunny areas, and usually avoid the indoors or deep shade. You can't control the larvae with pesticide because they breed in environmentally sensitive areas, or in places a distance away from where the adults come to feed.

I could hate horse flies, but both males and females feed on nectar, so they are also important pollinators. Country ecology would be in serious trouble without them. ("Country Gentleman" is a regular column by author and conservationist C.W. Nicol)

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