What’s Biting Me?! A Guide to Boundary Waters Bugs

If you’ve spent any time in Minnesota in the summer, you know that there’s almost always some sort of insect wandering around, hoping to feast upon your blood. We all wish it wasn’t so, but it seems the price we pay for beautiful, pristine wilderness lakes and forest is dealing with a herd of tiny vampire bugs.

We know fending off biting insects is probably not your favorite Boundary Waters activities, but with our extremely short growing season, these bugs play an important role in the Northwoods ecosystem. While you might see the tick you just pulled off your sock as the bane of your existence, that pretty little songbird chirping away in the tree above you might see that very same tick as a tasty protein-packed snack. 

Cue, Circle of Life.


Still, there’s not much we can say to make you feel better about the bugs you will undoubtedly encounter at some point when you visit the Boundary Waters and Quetico. Even the oft-spread rumor that black flies pollinate blueberry plants seems to be based around wishful rather than accurate science. The “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” philosophy is really not applicable here, so we subscribe to an “offense is your best defense” mentality. Below, we’ll spell out what biting insects could be eating you and how best to keep them at bay. 

What’s Biting Me?! Most prevalent time Bite characteristics Best defense Beware of . . .
Mosquitoes All summer, can linger into autumn evenings Itchy, but easily treated with calamine lotion or hydrocortisone ointment DEET; Citronella and/or Lemon Eucalyptus oils Especially prevalent in wet summer seasons
Black flies June to mid-July “Though she be but little, she is fierce.” Blackfly bites often bleed and swell. They can remain visible on your skin for weeks after the bite. DEET; Citronella and/or Lemon Eucalyptus oils. Long sleeves and headnets are best defense Some people have severe allergic reactions to blackfly bites. Avoid letting blackflies feast upon you
No-See-Ums Summer nights Itchy red blotchy patches on your forearms and legs DEET, Long-sleeves and pants in evenings These teeny gnats are drawn to light and can pass through window screens. To keep from inviting no-see-ums into your cabin or bunkhouse, limit how many lights you have and keep windows partially closed.
Stable flies Mid-July – August Sharp, stabbing bite, but few lingering effects Wear a hat and socks. These pests are particularly fond of ankles and scalps. Don’t tip over the canoe or cause yourself serious injury with a paddle blade when you decide to take a swing at the trio of “ankle biters” who are buzzing around the canoe hull.
Horse Flies Late summer Painful bite. Most people exclaim “this fly is taking a chunk out of my skin!” while the bite occurs. Avoid camping near low areas where horse flies breed. Horse flies hunt by sight, so the flailing you do keep mosquitoes and black flies away will actually attract horse flies
Ticks Snow melt – early July Often found scurrying on your body before it bites and attaches to your skin for an extended feed. If it does attach, consider smothering it in Vaseline or peanut butter or just accept that you will lose a little chunk of skin if you pull it off. Permethrin treated clothing Be sure to do a daily “tick” check on dogs and small children, especially if you’d passed through dry grassy areas during tick season. Ticks are very hard to kill: consider death by latrine or fire upon removal.
Hornets and Wasps Mid – late summer Very painful bite with lingering sting for hours after bite Watch for and avoid nests Especially prevalent during dry summers; be careful on portage trails