They're BACK! 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. (My 6 year old son 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 have to say, I've only been bitten once or twice - 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 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. An eccentric fellow, he 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 to build up immunity, you can always try to avoid them - or keep them away!
Beware of 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.
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!
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.
Insect repellents work to keep them away. You can always use any product that includes DEET. But for more natural remedies, "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 PredatorPee (don't ask) , 2 ounces for $6.99. http://www.predatorpee.com/old_woodsman.html You can also use Crocodile! Citronella (made here in my hometown of Keene, NH) which can be purchased online at http://www.dancingroots.com
Whatever you use, make sure you put it on your neck, ears, face, wrists and hands.
And if all else fails: You're safe in your house. Unlike mosquitoes, black flies won't go inside your house (or in a tent).
Marcia Passos Duffy is a freelance writer and the publisher/editor of The Heart of New England online magazine and weekly e-newsletter (www.theheartofnewengland.com), a publication that celebrates the unique character of the northern New England states of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. To subscribe to her free weekly e-newsletter on bed & breakfast deals, New England thrifty tips, contests, and gardening reminders, simply send a blank email to email@example.com
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