Originally created 08/30/99

Gnats swarm southern Georgia



ALBANY, Ga. -- Gnat season has arrived in south Georgia.

People wave their hands in front of their faces and jut their lower jaws out to blow air over their faces in futile attempts to shoo the tiny flies away.

Others just say you have to learn to live with the pests.

"They get into everything," said Frank Wingate, owner of Wingate's Lunker Lodge on Lake Seminole in extreme southwestern Georgia. "They're not too bad in soup; They color it up real good. When you swallow one, it's just like a piece of meat going down. It's a good source of protein."

Unable to eliminate gnats, the town of Camilla, about 30 miles south of Albany, has grudgingly accepted them. The town hosts an annual Gnat Days Festival the first weekend of May.

Beverly Sparks, an entomologist with the University of Georgia Extension Service in Athens, said gnats are worse in August and September because they breed in moist, sandy soils that have been disturbed by agricultural equipment.

Georgia is in the midst of a drought, but some areas get enough rain to support gnats from evening thunderstorms.

Gnats don't reproduce in the soils of the Piedmont Plateau. That's why there is a so-called "gnat line," separating the Piedmont Plateau from the Coastal Plain, running from Augusta to Macon to Columbus.

Gnats swarm around people and livestock because they are attracted to the moisture in eyes, mouth and nose. They are also attracted to the higher carbon dioxide levels that occur when humans and animals exhale, said Ms. Sparks, who grew up in the south Georgia town of Tifton and knows them from personal experience.

"They're about the size of a coarse grain of pepper," she said. "So, if you don't look too hard, you'll never know."

Gnats can transmit an eye inflammation known as "pink eye," but they are generally harmless, she said.

"Everybody learns how to swat gnats and blow them out of their faces," she said.

Even Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, who grew up in Albany, knows the discomfort that gnats can cause.

"Skin So Soft works, but the smell is worse than the gnats, so I usually go into battle defenseless," he said.

Skin So Soft, an Avon skin lotion, is a popular remedy, along with various brands of insect repellents.

"Mamma used to spray as much of that Deep Woods Off on us when we were kids," said Wes Sumner, manager of public information and media relations at Valdosta State University. "I tried to stay in front of fans as much as possible when I was on the porch. When I was outside playing, I just tried to outrun them."

Mr. Sumner, who grew up on a Lanier County peanut farm, said gnats have bothered him as far back as he can remember.

"They've got to be some of the most annoying critters on the planet," he said. "When I was a kid, they'd get in my ears and nose."

Like many other south Georgians, there were occasions when Mr. Sumner didn't close his mouth fast enough.

"They don't taste real good," he said.

Mr. Wingate said many south Georgians had rather swat gnats than endure the frenzied pace of city life.

"It's so quiet and peaceful down here, they put up with gnats," he said. "We ain't heard a police siren down here in three or four years."