We have gone from enjoying beautiful butterflies to cursing biting bugs. While painted lady butterflies are still around, their numbers are declining as they migrate.

Unfortunately, another insect is having a high population year and this one is not so enjoyable. The very tiny, black insects with a painful bite are minute pirate bugs.

These nuisance insects are about one-eighth of an inch long, somewhat flattened, and black with distinctive white markings on their backs. If you look closely or with a hand lens, they look like small cinch bugs.

Minute pirate bugs are true bugs, as opposed to beetles, moths, butterflies and so on. Fortunately, they are a beneficial insect being predators of plant pests like thrips, mites, aphids and insect eggs.

They are even biological control agents that can be purchased from commercial companies for natural greenhouse and garden pest control.

Unfortunately, they cannot tell people from prey so they probe us with their short, blunt beak to see if we might be tasty. And if you are sensitive to the bites like I am, they can create welts that itch for at least a few days.

While the probing is painful and may lead to itching, the bites are harmless. Pirate bugs do not feed on blood, inject venom or transmit diseases; hence they cause no harm to people. They are not a pest of plants and they cannot live indoors.

During summer, minute pirate bugs are abundant in field crops, wooded areas, gardens and landscapes while feeding on plant pests. From late summer up until cold weather, they begin the frustrating behavior of biting (probing) humans they happen to land on.

Most everyone I visit with wants to know how to keep these bugs from biting. There is no practical way of controlling minute pirate bugs or preventing their bites.

Because pirate bugs are not attracted to carbon dioxide like mosquitoes are, insect repellents are not effective against these tiny, biting bugs. Some people have reported applying baby oil to their skin makes the bugs less likely to bite since they get stuck in the oil.

Minute pirate bugs are most active during warm, sunny days. Be patient until the weather turns cold. Until then, work outdoors on cooler, cloudy days and wear long sleeves and long pants.

And be responsible about pesticide use. While some people may attempt to reduce pirate bug numbers by applying an insecticide in their landscape, this is not very effective and is likely to harm beneficial insects and pollinators, like painted lady butterflies.

Kelly Feehan is a UNL Extension educator-horticulture. She can be reached at 402-563-4901 or by email at kfeehan2@unl.edu.

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