Blackflies*

I was only two days into my first summer job and already I realized that I wasnıt going to make it.

A fifteen year old, I had been hired as a counselor at Camp Pathfinder in Algonquin Park, 200 miles north of Toronto. In late June a group of us had come up from western New York to prepare the camp for the arrival of other staff and campers.

The days on that Source Lake island were marvelous. We worked hard but the tasks were fun: creosoting cabins, erecting tents, repairing and painting canoes. The food was excellent and available in large quantities.

It was the nights that were unbearable. No sooner had I climbed into my bed roll than I felt the first pin prick on my cheek. I slapped it, easily crushing a small insect, but I could feel the welt rising where I had been bitten. Now there were two on the back of my neck ‹ and so it went hour after hour throughout the night. The tiny critters were relentless. They came right through the screens of our cabins. Bug nets didnıt help either: where the net touched the skin they bit right through it. Our insect repellent, citronella, deterred them only briefly and even then they would seek out new parts of my anatomy. They were easy to kill ‹ once they had you in their jaws they wouldnıt let go ‹ and I must have destroyed whole squadrons, but new legions always took up the attack until finally the sun rose and they left to regroup for the next eveningıs foray. I would have had to quit my job if that had kept up, but after two nights of torment my prayers were answered and the pestering devils just disappeared. July had arrived.

Those were blackflies ‹ the scourge of spring in the north woods. Sue Hubbell has it right when she calls them Bad Bugs in Broadsides from the Other Orders. They are also called buffalo gnats, that name deriving from the humpbacked appearance of these tenth-inch fiends. Whatever theyıre called, they have five rows of teeth, the better to bite you with.

There are about 1500 blackfly species world-wide, over 60 in eastern North America. Of those species less than a half dozen bite humans and only the female flies bite at that. Most others are benign nectar feeders. Unfortunately it takes only two of those regional species, the first arriving in late May, the other my late-June Algonquin enemy, to make life miserable along woodland streams each spring.

Campers and fishermen are not the only sufferers. Forest and farm animals are afflicted as well. In years of bad outbreaks Saskatchewan cattlemen lose millions of dollars as their cows suffer weight loss, sicken and even die, suffocating on thousands of the attacking insects they canıt help but inhale. Another blackfly species attacks only loons and I have seen the poor birds clothed in them. No wonder these divers stay under water so long.

Some blackflies are disease vectors. One spreads malaria-like leucocytozoa among birds. Far worse, African and Latin American blackflies carry onchocerciasis, a terrifying human plague also known as river blindness. In some areas almost a third of adult males are blinded.

We are, however, no longer entirely defenseless against this scourge. Deet and permethrin enhanced sprays offer better, but far from complete, protection. More important, a bacterium originally gathered in the Negev Desert called Bti, a version of the Bt insecticide widely used by gardeners, is almost instantaneously effective against blackfly larvae in streams.

Despite these defenses, I still wonıt venture north for another week. Old memories die hard.


* This column was published in modified form in the June 23, 1997 Buffalo News.