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Plague of Pico Rivera : Misunderstood Midge: Buzz Worse Than Its Bite

July 06, 1986|STEVEN R. CHURM | Times Staff Writer

If ever an insect needed a publicist, it's the misunderstood midge.

It's been around for at least 20,000 years, but few know its name.

Adding insult to insect, the midge is often confused with its kissin' cousin, the hated mosquito, and is blamed for the mosquito's dirty deeds--tattooing the bare flesh of picnickers and backyard barbecuers.

The midge is the Rodney Dangerfield of the winged set.

And nowhere is the image of the midge more tattered than in Pico Rivera, where the insect thrives in warm weather, experts say, in the shallow basins along the two rivers that flank the city.

It is here, where food and water are plentiful and the days are long and hot, that midges do best. While common elsewhere in Southern California, midges live here in staggering numbers, county health officials say.

In the quiet neighborhoods near the rivers, the midge has become an institution of sorts.

A longtime resident on Pico Vista Road, Cesar Molina, said the return of the midge heralds the coming of summer.

"People say it's impossible to tell when seasons change in Southern California. Hogwash!" he said. "You can almost set your calendar by those bugs. When they come back, summer can't be far away."

Midges are indeed a warm-weather phenomena, experienced by almost any Southern Californian who lives near a shallow body of fresh water. From late March until October, midges lay millions of eggs in the nutrient-rich silt of lake and river bottoms. When the eggs hatch, experts say, the infant midges often flap forth in a cloud of frenetic movement.

They are attracted to lights, window screens and almost any place that is shady and cool.

"They love front porches," said Frank Pelsue, general manager of the Southeast Mosquito Abatement District in South Gate. "If you startle them by walking out the front door, they swarm and get in your hair, your ears and in your eyes."

Midges are a nuisance, to be sure.

But unlike mosquitoes, long considered one of nature's most deadly disease carriers, midges pose no health threat, said Prof. M. S. Mulla, a bug expert at the University of California, Riverside.

Midges and mosquitoes can be the same size, shape and even coloration, thus the confusion for those who have studied bugs only from the end of a fly swatter.

However, there is one sharp difference: They aren't equipped with the mosquito's needle-like snout, a tiny weapon that is remarkably effective at piercing the skin and drawing blood as well as the ire of its victim.

There are more than 8,000 species of midges worldwide, with about two-dozen varieties buzzing around metropolitan Los Angeles.

Pico Rivera has become one of their favorite haunts.

"Every year we get more complaints from Pico Rivera than anywhere else in the county," said Ken Earhart, who coordinates ground-water recharge efforts for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works.

This year, Pelsue said, midges have been particularly thick and bothersome because the county has been dumping more water than usual into the ponds to help lower levels at several upstream mountain reservoirs that have been filled to capacity by several years of above-average rainfall.

Midges are hearty critters, making eradication difficult, if not impossible.

Attempts to control the midge population with chemicals and with fish that feed on the insect have also proved difficult.

"At best, we've reduced the numbers a bit . . . but they're awfully tough little guys," said Nick Richardson, assistant manager of the Orange County Water District. "If a neutron bomb goes off, we'll all be gone, but the midges will still be here."

Inadvertently, Mulla said, Southland builders are creating "ideal breeding grounds" for midges by adding ponds and lakes in housing developments. While often effective as a sales tool, Mulla said the estimated 200 residential lakes in the region are "hot beds" for midges.

"We may be our own worst enemy," Mulla said.

Midges do represent an important link in the food chain, the professor said, particularly for fish and birds that feed on midges swarming in the early morning or at dusk.

That's about the time Molina likes to throw a couple of steaks on the grill and open a beer in his Pico Rivera backyard.

"There's nothing worse than settling into my lawn chair on a warm summer night and having those bugs start buzzing me," said Molina, an independent auto salesman. "If I never see another mosquito, it will be too soon."

Or was that a midge?

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