Midges Sour Festive Chinese New Year Mood in Singapore

Bedok Reservoir resident Nigel Gette is not usually a religious person, but he is stocking up on incense sticks this Chinese New Year.

Over the past month, his family has been placing sticks of incense around the house to keep midges, which have been plaguing residents of the area, at bay.

"Our guests may not like it, but there's no choice. If the situation gets worse, we may have to hold our reunion dinner in a relative's house," said the 18-year-old student.

Other residents near the reservoir are similarly concerned that the infestation may dampen the festive mood, as the early Chinese New Year coincides with the usual annual visitation of the insects.

Since the start of the year, the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council has received more than 100 complaints about the tiny green and blue flies.

Aljunied GRC MP Low Thia Khiang said he has been visiting the affected area and is looking into the problem. However, he noted that according to feedback from residents, this year's infestation is not as serious as last year's.

Meanwhile, national water agency PUB, together with the National Environment Agency (NEA), is stepping up measures to monitor and control the population of midges after an increase in breeding was detected last month. A biological larvicide is now applied to the area more frequently - twice a day, compared to three times a week previously.

Algae, which the larvae of the midges feed on, is also being removed from rocks daily.

The PUB has commissioned a study by insect experts from the National University of Singapore, in a bid to identify longer-term solutions to the problems. The experts will work with entomologists from the NEA's Environmental Health Institute to review the current measures taken.

One of the world's foremost authorities on midges, Professor Peter Cranston, will also be flown in next month to speak on possible methods to keep the pests under control.

When contacted, Prof Cranston, who teaches at the University of California, Davis, said one possible reason for the scale of the infestation in Singapore is the onset of heavy rain, which washes nutrients from the soil into the reservoir. This in turn causes the algae in them to bloom, boosting the number of midges as their larvae feed on algae.

"What is so short-sighted is that it seems no one has been monitoring nutrients in the water, algal densities and midge numbers to identify what exactly is going on in Singapore. Without this data, it is educated guesswork," he said.

Meanwhile, residents have come up with various creative ways to mitigate the problem.

Sixty-year-old Irene Lim has been hanging up a 2m-long patchwork quilt, which has been soaked in water, along her corridor every day - a homemade version of a sticky trap which stalls the midges that fly into it.

Her door and four windows are also covered with netting to keep the unwanted pests out.

"The netting spoils the festive atmosphere and doesn't make my house look very presentable," she said. "It also makes the house very stuffy, but... it can keep out about half the number of midges that would otherwise come in and disturb my guests."

Chew She Bee said he has got used to cooking and bathing without the lights on, as the midges often swarm around fluorescent lights.

"That's still all right - what's irritating is that they get into my nostrils, and it's really uncomfortable," said the 60-year-old salesman.

The insect explosion has also attracted large numbers of swifts, which feed on the insects, to the area. Bird droppings have become the new bugbear for some of the residents.

The infestation has hit eateries hard, and some stallholders lament that business has been down by around 30 to 50 percent.

A Chinese restaurant, Super Lucky Restaurant, has not only had to close two hours earlier every day for the past three weeks - as the insects proliferate in the evening hours - but it also does not charge its customers for their meals should the flies land in their food.

For staff at the Mixed Vegetable Rice Stall at the Block 739 coffee shop in Bedok Reservoir, cooking at night has been a hassle.

"We have to stop all cooking at 6pm to avoid the midges. Sometimes, the customers find them in their food but we tell them that it can't be helped," said stall assistant Kim Wong.

Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times Indonesia. To subscribe to Straits Times Indonesia and/or the Jakarta Globe call 021 2553 5055.

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