Bitten by midges a million times - in name of science

Dr James Logan with volunteers. Picture: BBC Scotland
Dr James Logan with volunteers. Picture: BBC Scotland
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IT would take 20 million midges to bite you to death – a possibility that seems entirely feasible to anyone who has holidayed in rural Scotland.

Dr James Logan is five per cent of the way there already. The East Lothian entomologist has been bitten by the dreaded midge about one million times – all in the name of scientific research.

And in a new BBC documentary, The Secret Life of Midges, he puts the tiny, blood-sucking beastie under the microscope in an attempt to discover just why some people are more attractive to the midge than others.

This summer, he headed north, recruiting 23 volunteers to be bitten, in search of someone who is “naturally repellent” and to find out the secret of their in-built midge force-field.

But perhaps his biggest challenge was finding decent mobile phone reception so he could call home to speak to his pregnant wife.

“It was a nightmare,” he said. “We were in Glencoe and the hotel’s phone wasn’t working or the wi-fi and the mobile reception was very poor, so I’d be out at night up hills to try and get a signal and call Kirsty.

“She was eight months pregnant and I had this fear that the baby would come while I was away. It perhaps wasn’t the best timing to be midge hunting, but it was the right time to find them. Thankfully I didn’t have to make an emergency trip home.”

Now a dad to six-week-old Maggie, Dr Logan, who is one of the best-known bug scientists on TV thanks to shows like Embarrassing Bodies (for which he swallowed a tapeworm), Bang Goes the Theory and The One Show, is on a quest to change people’s minds about the midge in his documentary.

“I think they are beautiful creatures,” he laughs. “When I was at university I thought I’d spend my life working on big animals but then I had a lecture on insects and the Scottish biting midge and I was hooked – how could something just 2mm in size wreak so much havoc across the world?

“I know how infuriating and irritating they are and how sore their bites can be – I’ve spent more time being bitten by midges than any sane person should – but I’m fascinated by them and want to know what makes them tick.”

He adds: “The great midge mystery is why some people, like me, are so attractive to them and bitten to bits, while others are barely bitten at all. Are some people naturally repellent?”

So a temporary lab was put together in a wooden lodge near Lochaber and, armed with ladies’ stockings, squares of cardboard and a long plastic tube, the volunteers, collected from campsites and Lochaber rugby club, were made to sit in midge-infested fields and be bitten for 30 seconds, using a number clicker to count how many insects landed on their arms.

“Conditions have to be just right for them,” says Dr Logan. “They can only take off in wind below 5mph, it has to be dry and over 10 degrees centigrade because they’re terribly tiny, weighing just an 8000th of a gram each. Their beautiful, iridescent wings beat more than 1000 times per second – the fastest wing beat in the animal kingdom.”

While all that makes the midge sound rather delicate and lovely, Dr Logan’s documentary has some rather less comforting revelations: the midge’s mouth works like two saws to cut through skin and pumps midge saliva into the wound to keep blood flowing; half a million of them can hatch from one two-metre-square patch of peaty soil – so 25 per cent of Scotland’s land mass is perfect midge territory; there are as many as 180,750 trillion midges in Scotland. Like many insect species, the female is more deadly than the male. Indeed, male midges don’t bite at all, while the females do it for food – up to 200 eggs can be produced from one abdomen-full of blood from one bite.

Then there’s that 20 million bites figure. Dr Logan laughs: “Of course that would have to be all at once, so is very unlikely. But there are stories of people being tied to stakes and left to the midges as a form of torture.”

As well as recruiting volunteers for his midge experiment, Dr Logan visits famous landscape artist John Lowrie Morrison, who has lived in Argyll for 40 years – and discovers that the midge has contributed to his success.

“You tend to become accustomed to them, you become acclimatised that they’re going to be there,” says the artist. “I used to take my canvas outside to sit and paint, but the midges used to end up on it as well as biting me. So I took to smoking cigars and pipes, though I’d never smoked before.

“Eventually I said I’ve had enough of this, they’re getting to me, and I just stopped painting outside – the midges chased me inside.

“So now I go out with sketchbook and take quick line drawings and photos and paint inside. They have affected the way I work . . . I’m working from memory and as an expressionist, it filters out the detail, I want it to be loose and free . . . so really it’s worked,” he laughs.

“But I wouldn’t like to see midges being destroyed just for our comfort. They’re beautiful wee things.”

The documentary also looks at the history of the midge and Dr Logan tries a natural repellent that has been tested by Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden. Bog myrtle is a plant with a citrus smell – but for the North Berwick-born scientist, it fails to protect him.

However, one of his volunteers does appear to be naturally repellent, so his sweat is collected for testing in the labs at London’s School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “Hidden in body odour is one specific chemical which the midge seems to hate,” he says. “It’s ketone and I know from testing myself that I don’t have any. The chap we tested had it going off the scale, so it seems to be a natural repellent and we think one in seven people have it.

“Other experiments lead us to believe this is hereditary so we need to do a genetic study and if we can isolate the gene, then maybe we can produce a pill.

“But one day Scotland will win the battle against the midge – and live with it in harmony.”

n The Secret Life of Midges will be screened on BBC One Scotland on Monday at 9pm.

newsen@edinburghnews.com