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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.  

(As my youngest used to say:
“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 more
than 20 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, New Hampshire, 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. Kids seem to 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

“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

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

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

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 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.

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:

Take refuge 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
Black Fly (enlarged photo) Only 1/6th of an
inch long, but they sting like $%@#%!
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