Each spring and fall, just around the holiday weekends of Memorial Day, July Fourth, or Labor Day, Cleveland's lakefront communities are invaded by small, harmless flies called midges. The bugs only stay about five to 10 days, but the large swarms of mosquito-looking insects can be startling to visitors and families on vacation. Flocks of birds may be attracted to the swarms, but humans, not so much.
What Are Midges?
The non-biting, eighth to half-inch long insects are properly called Chironomus plumosus and commonly, but erroneously, called Canadian soldiers. Midges are native to Northeast Ohio and Lake Erie. The locals call them "muffleheads" or "muckleheads."
Midges breed like mosquitoes in wet areas. Eggs are laid on the surface of the water. Each egg mass may contain up to 3,000 eggs depending on the species. Eggs sink to the bottom and hatch in several days to one week. The larvae burrow into the mud or construct small tubes in which they live. The larvae gradually turn a dark red when they mature and are commonly called bloodworms. Then, they pupate, swim to the surface, and adults emerge to mate in swarms. Adults live up to five days. They spawn in the lake when Lake Erie warms to around 60 degrees and then again in the fall when the lake cools.
Midges are beneficial as they provide food for a variety of freshwater fish, like walleye, perch, and bass, as well as other aquatic creatures. Birds, such as swallows and martins, also eat them.
Midge larvae, while in the bloodworm phase, “clean” the aquatic environment by consuming and recycling organic debris.
Adults can be pests when they emerge in large numbers. They can damage paint, brick, and other surfaces with their droppings. When a swarm dies, they often pile up into stinky carcass mounds. If you are sensitive to them, you can get an allergic reaction.
How to Prevent Infestation
Midges are attracted to fluorescent white and blue lights. To avoid the bugs, keep lights off as much as possible at night, and replace the bright lights with yellow lights, which usually do not attract the pests. Close window shades. Use subdued walkway or landscape lighting. Do not illuminate lampposts or floodlights except when needed.
But if they are already splattered all over the side of your car or house, hose them down with water or brush them away. Do not use any chemicals, there is no need to add toxins to the environment unnecessarily. Once they die, they are usually gone until another swarm emerges from the lake.
The little insects are credited with helping the Cleveland Indians win the 2007 American League Championship Series when a swarm unnerved Yankees pitcher, Joba Chamberlin, who was freaked out by the midges flying around his face on the mound.
Midge swarms in June and July can be staggering enough to even display on Doppler weather radar, resembling densities similar to a moderate rainfall.