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Tuesday, January 23, 2001

Swarms of
midges plague Maui

The tiny flies are such a
nuisance that officials are
testing how to control them

By Gary Kubota

KIHEI, Maui -- Millions of flies have been throwing their bodies into car windshields, diving uninvited into swimming pools and hovering around parking lot lights at condominiums in south Maui.

"They rise in plumes like a small tornado," said Gary Elster, president of the Sugar Beach Homeowners Association in north Kihei. "It's like one of those dust swirls. They're all over the place."

These midges have become such a nuisance that the federal government is conducting a $100,000 study to control their numbers, much to the relief of nearby condominium owners.

Federal officials and scientists are scheduled to discuss the study at a meeting at 6 tonight at the Kihei Community Center Conference room.

"You can't eat outside. You can't even be outside because they get into your eyes and ears and mouth," Elster said. "We've had people cancel out of Sugar Beach and leave because they're so bothered by them. They simply interfere with people living their lives."

While some midges are native to Hawaii, these particular flies are aliens. They're found in Australia and some Pacific islands.

They appear at night and especially at dawn and dusk when there is less wind.

Scientists say they don't know when the flies arrived in Hawaii. The midges were reported as nuisances in south Maui as early as 1996. Officials say sighting of these midges have been reported on Oahu in 1945 and near the Kahului Airport.

Scientists say they don't know if the numbers have increased in recent years on Maui because of limited information.

But some South Maui residents say the problem is getting worse and beginning to spread south to other parts of Kihei.

Problem getting worse

A Bishop Museum entomologist estimated the number of mature midge maggots at 150 million to 200 million at Kealia in 1998 and noted that some 50 million midges emerged in the first week of December 1997.

These alien midges, known as Polypedilum nubifer, have bodies about half an inch long and wingspans about a quarter of an inch wide.

They don't bite; they just barge in. The smaller ones go through window screens. The larger ones find their way through cracks in sliding glass doors and breaks in window seals.

During the rainy season from January through March, millions of them emerge from muddy waters of nearby Kealia National Wildlife Refuge and begin to swarm in the mornings and at sunset.

Midges feed on dead vegetable matter in the pond.

The large swarms that form tall columns are made up of male midges.

Scientists say female midges enter the swarm to find a male. They mate in flight and the female flies away to lay her eggs. The eggs become larvae, or bloodworms, that eventually form shells or pupae.

After a period of growth, the shells rise to the surface of the water and split, allowing adult midges to take flight.

Scientists say especially on moonless nights, the midges are attracted to lights of condominiums and motor vehicles.

After going through a swarm on North Kihei Road, the windshields of vehicles appear to have been splattered with multiple bird droppings.

"It was a horrible smear of bugs," said Maui resident Tony Novak-Clifford, whose van ran through the infestation.

Michael Nishimoto, another refuge official, said during the day, the midges hide in the underbrush.

"You can actually hear them humming," Nishimoto said.

He's seen dead midges collect along condominium stairwells where lights are on all night.

"It kind of smells like shrimp -- a fishy kind of smell," he said.

Food for endangered birds

Federal wildlife officials point out midges appear to be an important source of food for a number of birds at the nearby 691-acre refuge, including the endangered Hawaiian coot and stilt.

The refuge serves as home for a few hundred native coots and nearly half of the endangered Hawaiian stilts in the state, according to the federal government. Officials say they're trying to find a way to control the number of midges so they aren't a nuisance.

"Our goal is not to eliminate them because of their importance as food for waterfowl," said Martin Berg, a principal investigator in the study.

Two methods of control are being used in the study.

One is to feed the midges a protein from dead bacteria that will kill them. Another is to expose the midges to a chemical that prevents them from taking wing and reproducing.

Berg said the chemical has been used to control midges in Florida but has never been used on the midges in Kealia. He said scientists are testing the use of the protein for the first time on this species.

Berg said the tests will be limited to a small area of the pond to determine the impact on midges and other insects, as well as wildlife.

The final report about the midges is expected to be completed by Oct. 15 and submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The $100,000 insect study is part of a $700,000 allocation from Congress to study Kealia.

Scientists will also be conducting water and vegetation studies.

Elster believes part of the problem stems from a lack of enough water in the pond.

"When the water was deeper, we never had midge problems," he said.

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