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The (Dreaded) Black Flies

by Marcia Passos Duffy

If you live in northern New England, you know that starting around Mother’s
Day and ending around Father’s Day is black fly season.  

(As my youngest says: “They must love to bite moms and not dads.”)  As far as I
know, black flies (which are also called buffalo gnats) don’t favor either male or
female humans – they only want your blood.  Perhaps the appearance of black
flies on Mother’s Day is significant when you consider the life cycle of the insect:
biting black flies are female only – they need a meal of blood to lay eggs.  

I heard of the dreaded New England “black fly” season when we first moved to
New Hampshire 10 years ago.  While these tiny, 1/6th of an inch, black flies are
found all over the US, with the exception of Florida, they seem to like New
Englanders (and Canadians) the best and this area has gotten a reputation for
hosting what seems to be an annual convention for these insects from mid-spring
to early summer.  While my friends who live outside the city of Keene, NH,
complain bitterly of the black fly season – which unhappily coincides with trying
to get your tomatoes in the garden, among other things – we have never had a
huge problem here in Keene.

I’ve only been bitten about three times – but if you’ve ever been bitten, it is not
something you’ll easily forget. It starts out innocently as what seems to be a
mosquito bite – but swells to alarming proportions.  I tend to get bitten on my
legs.  My kids get them around their ears and neck – tender areas, I presume, for a
hungry egg-laying female.

My neighbor, who grew up within the black-fly belt in Maine, says that she doesn’t
get bitten very much anymore.  “I heard that you develop immunity after a while,”
she said, and proceeded to tell me a story – which was told to her – about a man
who went across the country on horseback a few years ago.  Whether this is an
urban (or rural if you will) legend, I am not sure.  But it is worth repeating:  This
eccentric fellow, wore a huge black hat when riding through New England (right
after Mother’s Day, by the way) to “…catch black flies.”  When enough gathered
on his hat, swept them up and ate them “…to build up his immunity.”  

Whether this is true or not (that he ate them) is subject to debate (if this is
something you care to talk about at all!) but the fact that you build up an
immunity has some basis in fact.  According to the University of Maine’s
Cooperative Extension’s information:

“Generally black fly bites cause some itching and minor swelling from the first few bites of the
season, following which an immunity develops, with subsequent reduced reactions.  
Nonetheless, even individuals who have lived all their lives in black fly country and are
exposed every season, can have greater effects if they get an unusually high number of bites
on their first exposure of the season, or have some significant change in their physical
condition or medical status.”  

(Ahem, note nothing about eating them is mentioned.)

Other than getting bit or having them for a snack, you can always try to
avoid them
– or keep them away!  

Here’s how:

Stay inside at sunset, right before a storm, and cloudy days.  
Black flies are most active during daylight hours, and particularly on cloudy
days.  They are active in the early morning and evening right after sunset (peak
time).  Black flies are active right before a storm – but hide during rain or cold.

Get a bird feeder.  
Much like our horseback rider friend, some birds (such as swallows) and other
insects (dragonflies) find black flies to be a tasty meal.  Another good reason to
hang bird feeders in your yard.

Use old fashioned remedies -- garlic and baking soda baths.  
If you do get bit, soak yourself in a baking soda bath (about 1 cup for a full tub) to
help ease the itchiness.  My grandmother’s old remedy for ANY kind of insect bite
is to cut a garlic clove in half and rub on your bite.  You won’t smell great, but I
can attest that it does help ease the itch, and “…cuts the poison,” as my
grandmother insisted.

And remember these facts about black flies:

Black flies have a sense of fashion.  
Light shades such as orange, yellow and light green are less attractive to black flies
than dark shades such as blue, purple or red.  But black flies can’t bite through
clothing – so wear long pants, a long-sleeve shirt.

They also love perfume & babbling brooks.  
Avoid wearing perfume, aftershave, or perfumed personal products when you’re
outside – they are drawn to the scent. And, unlike mosquitoes, which breed in
standing water, black flies breed in running water.

Black flies are lazy.  
Or maybe they’re just slow.  Whatever the case, they can’t keep up with you if you’
re walking fast.  But if you stop – watch out!

Insect repellents work to keep them away.
You can always use any product that includes DEET.  But for more natural
“Olde Time Woodsman's Liquid Fly Dope" is one of the oldest black fly
formulas, created in 1882 and bottled in 1937 after being tested by loggers at
woods camps in northern Maine.  It was sold in sporting goods store throughout
New England for many years. I found it for sale at one website called
(don't ask) , 2 ounces for $6.99.

You can also use
Crocodile! Citronella (made here in my hometown of Keene, NH)
which can be purchased online. Whatever you use, make sure you put it on your
neck, ears, face, wrists and hands.

And, remember, if all else fails:

You’re safe in your house.
Unlike mosquitoes, black flies won’t go inside your house (or in a tent).

More about black fly season.

About the author: Marcia Passos Duffy is the publisher and editor of The Heart of New, a free online magazine.  
Black Fly (enlarged photo) Only 1/6th of an
inch long, but they sting like $%@#%!
©The Heart of New England online magazine
...celebrating the unique character & culture of Maine, New Hampshire & Vermont!
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