Culicoides biting midges are incriminated as biological vectors of a number of viruses, e.g. bluetongue virus. In order to define vector-free periods/areas and to assess the vectorial role of the various Culicoides species, a comprehensive knowledge on their spatio-temporal occurrence is required.
Biting midges were monitored on farm sites with livestock in the defined climatic regions, including high altitudes, of Switzerland by overnight trapping at 12 locations once a week over three years using UV-light traps. Based on morphological features, they were separated into three groups (i.e. Obsoletus, Pulicaris, other Culicoides spp.), and identification to the species level was achieved by protein profiling using MALDI-TOF mass spectrometry.
Around 550,000 biting midges in total were collected, revealing a dominance (82 to 99%) of the Obsoletus group species up to an altitude of 1,200 m and of the Pulicaris group species above 1,500 m (85% at the highest trapping site at 2,130 m). The maximum number of midges collected in a summer night (756 to 19,682) as well as the total number of midges caught over three years (from 6,933 to 149,439) varied highly among the sites, whereas the annual variation in total midge abundance at the locations was statistically insignificant. MALDI-TOF MS of 100 randomly selected individual biting midges per trapping site yielded high quality spectra for 1,187 of the 1,200 (98.9%) specimens of which 1,173 could be assigned to one of the 15 Culicoides species for which biomarker mass sets are available in the reference database.
There are no biting midge-free zones in all of the agriculturally utilized areas (including alpine summer pastures) of Switzerland. Annual variations of midge numbers at the sampled locations were low, indicating that monitoring of midges should preferably be done by investigating a large number of sites for one season instead of few locations for extended periods of time. High throughput species identification of midges by MALDI-TOF MS is feasible, and this technique adds to other recently developed methods for the identification of midges (PCRs in various formats, interactive identification keys), facilitating epidemiological and biological in-depth studies of these important insects.