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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Dancing Gnats

Air Date: Week of

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Gnats are those little bugs that annoy you in the summertime and a whole lot more. If you know the trick, gnats will actually move at your command. Jeff Rice reports from Idaho.


TOOMEY: Now, here’s a story about one of those unheralded creatures that E.O. Wilson says are such a vital part of our planet’s biodiversity. From Idaho, Jeff Rice has this story about having fun with gnats.

RICE: Near the Boise Foothills, the river ambles through the pastures and cottonwood groves. The late afternoon sun gives the marsh grass a soft focus. And a blizzard of gnats rises up near the water’s edge where a man is humming.

ROBERTSON: [Humming]

RICE: But he’s not humming to himself. And there’s no real tune.

ROBERTSON: [HUMMING. LAUGH.] You must think I’m crazy.

RICE: Dr. Ian Robertson is an entomologist at Boise State. One day, when we were talking about something completely different, he casually tells me that you can hum to gnats and, in a sense, they’ll dance for you.

ROBERTSON: Just a simple hum. [Humming]

RICE: He says it’s just one of those things that’s passed around from entomologist to entomologist. I believed him, not just because I wanted to, but because it actually makes sense.

ROBERTSON: Well the males have special organs at the base of their antenna that can detect the wing frequency, the vibrations of the female’s wing. And so, when a female flies into the area, the males detect that, and then all swarm towards her. And so, when we’re humming, we’re trying to mimic the frequency of the wing beats of the female in terms of the sound it makes.


RICE: And it actually works. Hum, the gnats move forward. Stop humming, they stop. Forward, stop.

ROBERTSON: [Humming]

RICE: Clouds of gnats shift direction like flocks of birds. Then they become liquid. They move and surge almost like a tide lapping against the shore. And the humming pulls them like an undertow.

ROBERTSON: You see how just the whole group of them just sort of speeds up when that happens. [Humming] And then as soon as you stop, they just go back into their normal flight pattern. [Humming]

RICE: It’s not long before we are controlling whole fields of them. It’s nothing short of beautiful, a swirling Busby Berkeley musical of insects. And it gives me an idea. If this works with a couple of people, think of the possibilities. Hit it.
[Group humming]

MALE 1: So did we attract any gnats, do you know?

MALE 2: I had one fly up my nose. [Laughter]

TOOMEY: Our lesson on how to make gnats dance was produced by Jeff Rice. Choral humming courtesy of the Boise State Chamber Singers. Coming up, Indiana Jane and the Women of Discovery. First, this Environmental Health Note from Jessica Penney.




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