Down here they say that God invented bugs to keep the Yankees from completely taking over the South. And insects are probably the most unpleasant fact of life in the southeastern coastal region.
The list of annoying indigenous insects must begin with the infamous sand gnat (Culicoides furens). This tiny and persistent nuisance, a member of the midge family, lacks the precision of the mosquito with its long proboscis. No, the sand gnat is more torture-master than surgeon, brutally gouging and digging away its victim’s skin until it hits a source of blood. Most prevalent in the spring and fall, the sand gnat is drawn to its prey by the carbon dioxide trail of its breath.
While long sleeves and long pants are one way to keep gnats at bay, the only real antidote to the sand gnat’s assault—other than never breathing—is the Avon skin care product Skin So Soft, which has taken on a new and wholly unplanned life as the South’s favorite anti-gnat lotion. In calmer moments grow to appreciate the great contribution sand gnats make to the salt marsh ecosystem—as food for birds and bats.
Running a close second to the sand gnat are the over three dozen species of highly aggressive mosquito, which breeds anywhere a few drops of water lie stagnant. Not surprisingly, massive populations blossom in the rainiest months, in late spring and late summer, feeding in the morning and late afternoon. Like the gnat, the mosquito—the biters are always female—homes in on its victim by trailing the plume of carbon dioxide exhaled in the breath.
More than just a biting nuisance, mosquitoes are now vectoring West Nile disease to the Lowcountry and Georgia coast, signaling a possibly dire threat to public health. Local governments in the region pour millions of dollars of taxpayer money into massive pesticide spraying programs from helicopters, planes, and trucks. While that certainly helps stem the tide, it by no means eliminates the mosquito population.
Alas, Skin So Soft has little effect on the mosquito. Try over-the-counter sprays, anything smelling of citronella, and wearing long sleeves and long pants when weather permits.
But undoubtedly the most viscerally loathed of all pests on the Lowcountry and Georgia coasts is the so-called “palmetto bug,” or American cockroach (Periplaneta americana). These black, shiny, and sometimes grotesquely massive insects—up to two inches long—are living fossils, virtually unchanged over hundreds of millions of years. And perfectly adapted as they are to life in and among wet, decaying vegetation, they’re unlikely to change a bit in 100 million more years.
While they spend most of their time crawling around, usually under rotting leaves and tree bark, the American cockroach can indeed fly—sort of. There are few more hilarious sights than a room full of people frantically trying to dodge a palmetto bug that has just clumsily launched itself off a high point on the wall. Because the cockroach doesn’t know any better than you do where it’s going, it can be a particularly bracing event—though the insect does not bite and poses few real health hazards.
Popular regional use of the term “palmetto bug” undoubtedly has its roots in a desire for polite Southern society to avoid using the ugly word “roach” and its connotations of filth and unclean environments. But the colloquialism actually has a basis in reality. Contrary to what anyone tells you, the natural habitat of the American cockroach—unlike its kitchen-dwelling, much-smaller cousin the German cockroach—is outdoors, often up in trees. They only come inside human dwellings when it’s especially hot, especially cold, or especially dry outside. Like you, the palmetto bug is easily driven indoors by extreme temperatures and by thirst.
Other than visiting the Southeast during the winter, when the roaches go dormant, there’s no convenient antidote for their presence. The best way to keep them out of your life is to stay away from decaying vegetation and keep doors and windows closed on especially hot nights.
© Jim Morekis from Moon Charleston & Savannah, 4th Edition