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They crave those tears: Why gnats go for the eyes

WASHINGTON — It’s great to be outdoors in summer but rainy weather followed by heat and humidity produce a regular summer nuisance in Washington — gnats.

The tiny flies have the annoying habit of swarming around your face and landing on the corners of your eyes. You can try shooing them away, but they are persistent pests and their populations are thick this time of year in D.C., Maryland and Virginia.

“They’re going to track you when you’re walking through your neighborhood, because they’re breeding right there in those lawns and along parks,” said “Bug Guy” Dr. Mike Raupp, entomologist at the University of Maryland.

Raupp said that gnats, also known as fruit flies, grass flies or eye gnats are decomposers that thrive in decaying grasses and vegetation and are attracted to humans.

“What they really are after … are tears. They’re attracted to lacrimal secretions from the eyes, this is why they’re always flying around your eyes,” Raupp said.

In warm weather they’re active all day long. And while these particular gnats don’t bite, in some cases, Raupp warns, they’ve been known to spread bacteria causing conjunctivitis or pink eye.

For those outside for prolonged periods, perhaps working in the garden, mowing lawns or walking dogs, Raupp said that gnats can be kept at bay by mosquito netting that is draped over a hat, covering the head and shoulders.

“It’s a loosefitting mosquito netting, it’s very comfortable to work in and that’s going to keep those little eye gnats away from your face,” Raupp said.

Raupp said a wide-brim hat or a ball cap can help provide some relief from gnats.

“What I do is I take my WTOP cap and treat the bill on my ball cap with a little bit of mosquito repellent or insect repellent and I think that also helps keep them away,” he said.

The region’s warm, humid weather, which promotes the growth of grasses and vegetations, boosts gnat populations. Then gnats disappear with the cooling weather in the fall.

“Once that first autumm frost hits, we’ll see these guys disappear and that will be the end of those gnats and let’s just hope our other Nats keep going all season long,” Raupp said.


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