You may, gentle reader, have experienced the unpleasant aftermath of having been bitten by a cleg already this summer.
The bad news is that, if you have escaped this delight so far in 2018 … and even if you have been bitten already … the continuing hot weather is great news for clegs and more of us will be bitten .. or bitten again … in the coming weeks. And, since we are not much more than half-way through the cleg-biting season … which runs from late May to mid-September … the clegs have plenty of time left to find and bite us.
As is the case with that scourge of the Scottish Highlands … the midge … and that curse of warm, humid, holiday destinations … the mosquito … male clegs don’t bother us; the cleg which bites is the female. The male cleg is content with a diet of nectar sucked from flowers: but the female cleg needs access to a source of protein to produce her eggs. This less-than-wholly-ladylike example of feminity actually stabs you, jabbing two pairs of sharp cutting blades through your skin to access your flesh and to open up the initial stab-wound somewhat to make it easier for her to lap up your blood. Charming!
Now, since the cleg needs a few seconds to undertake this blood-collecting procedure, it literally hooks itself to you by means of tiny catches along its various mouth parts; and this may well be the reason for it being called the ‘cleg’, for the Danish word ‘klæg’ comes from the word ‘klæbe’ meaning ‘to stick’. The cleg injects saliva containing anticoagulant into the wound to prevent clotting and, although this saliva is not in itself poisonous, it does contain irritants which set up the initial itching which is usually the first sign of having been bitten; and the much-larger-than-usual insect bite is easily infected, particularly since our reaction to the initial itchiness is to scratch the wound and thereby to help infectious agents bypass the usual protection afforded by our skin.
The most common type of cleg … and therefore the sort of cleg by which we are most likely to be bitten … is the notch-horned cleg, which seems to be attracted to a potential blood donor by its victim’s movement and warmth, and by the texture of the target’s skin. Large mammals like horses and cattle are favoured prey, with the added vulnerability of being pretty well powerless to knock clegs off: but they find exposed human skin very tempting and are a particular nuisance to bathers and beach-loving sun-worshippers, since they seem to be attracted by reflections from water and much prefer flying about in bright sunshine rather than in shade. (This latter characteristic means that they are very seldom active during the night.) However, their liking for easily-accessible skin and the attractiveness of water makes even town-dwellers vulnerable when they are enjoying a beautiful, sunny day beside the children’s paddling pool, the goldfish pond or the garden water feature.
The first symptom of having been bitten by a cleg is itchiness. In some people … fortunately not many … this can be followed by a feeling of dizziness or general weakness, by wheezing or by swellings around the eyes and lips. A very small minority of victims, who experience some very real difficulty in breathing and feel nauseous or are actually sick, should seek medical help as quickly as possible. Most of us can, however, treat a cleg bite by resisting the inclination to scratch the wound; by cleaning the skin around the bite with a clean cloth and plain, warm water; and by using an ice pack … a bag of frozen peas laid over the bite for ten minutes works a treat … to help reduce the swelling and alleviate the pain. After that, you just have to grin and bear it until it gets better. Happy sun-bathing!