Northwestern’s gnats make a comeback after a year of isolation


Illustration by Eliana Storkamp

Tourists who visit Northwestern during gnat season will find students vigorously waving their arms and running for shelter in the nearest building.

Angeli Mittal, Creative Director

It’s gnat time of year. 

Walking around campus the past few weeks, students frequently have had to vigorously swat their arms or run to the nearest building for shelter from swarms of gnats.

The Chicago area is home to these seasonal non-biting flies, also known as chironomid midges. Located on Lake Michigan, Northwestern provides the optimal breeding environment for these flies. Their larvae live underwater, which is why large clouds of them swarm by the Lakefill.

While they might be harmless, some students said the gnats are not very welcoming.

SESP senior Bobby Read has been dealing with gnats since his freshman year. Working at Main Library, Read said he gets a prime view of the gnats in the upper courtyard.

“It looks like the cement is speckled, but it’s actually just a ton of gnats just sitting there, which is disgusting,” he said. “I feel like I have to do the hokey pokey walking into every building I go into just to get them off of me.”

While in Quarantine and Isolation Housing, Read said gnats infiltrated his room even with the windows closed.

Communication and Weinberg sophomore Rivers Leche said the swarms of gnats feel like an invasion of space. She said they have gotten caught in her mask and died in her eye.

“It’s two weeks of hell,” Leche said. “They descend upon you … You feel like you’re going to war when you’re going outside.”

While gnats might be an expected part of the NU experience, Weinberg junior Maddie Brown said they have gotten worse this year. 

“I was crossing Sheridan at that big crosswalk, and a cloud of gnats enveloped me,” Brown said. “I was waving my arms around, shaking my head around … and then there were dead gnats in my hair and on my mask and their little bodies were just there.”

McCormick freshman Ryan Moorhead grew up in the Washington, D.C. area. He said although NU’s gnats are half the size of those back home, they seem omnipresent. 

“You don’t see clouds of gnats where I’m from,” Moorhead said. “I was not warned about the gnats.”

According to a recent Chicago Tribune article, the swarms are a sign of gnat mating behavior because male gnats swarm to attract female gnats. They tend to congregate in high-contrast areas for visibility.

There are conflicting opinions swarming around about the end date for these clouds. While Read said gnats lasted up to a month in his previous experiences, second-year psychology Ph.D. student Gayathri Subramanian said she heard they are gone after two weeks. 

These flies live for three to 11 days, and when temperatures stay cool, the swarms tend to stay around for longer, according to the article.

Never having dealt with gnats before coming to the U.S., Subramanian said she initially found it annoying when gnats pelted her on her bike rides to campus. She said she is grateful for the extra barrier of protection from masks, which have prevented her from swallowing gnats.

However, she said she started to feel empathetic for them after learning about their short lifespan.

“They were really fragile, so if I swat them, they sort of died, and I felt really bad about that,” Subramanian said. “They are harmless, so I guess it’s okay to just deal with them.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @amittal27

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