Black flies are uninvited guests to the outdoors party
By Mike Lynch
If you’ve spent time outdoors in the Adirondacks in the spring, you’re bound to have a black fly story.
Most go something like this:
You were out hiking, paddling or perhaps gardening on a beautiful 60-degree day. The flowers were blooming, the sky was overcast and the air humid.
Finally enjoying warm weather after months of freezing temperatures, you suddenly noticed you weren’t alone.
In fact, dozens, perhaps hundreds of small bugs swarmed your head and seemed to land on every inch of exposed skin. You tried to swat them away, but soon your skin started to itch and perhaps blood began running down the back of your neck, or from your ear or forehead. After a while, you abandoned the idea of enjoying the woods, and made a beeline to your vehicle or house, where you breathed a sigh of relief at being left alone.
These small insects can ruin your day, but they don’t have to if you’re prepared for them, and doing so isn’t difficult.
You should know black fly season is generally from Mother’s Day to Father’s Day or into early July, with the peak roughly in the middle. The flies breed in cold, clean running water and emerge when water temperatures hit the 40s. They seem to be very active during humid and overcast days and can be found in abundance in wet areas with currents, such as beaver swamp outlets.
Black fly activity peaks from 9 to 11 a.m. and from 4 to 7 p.m., or until the sun falls below the horizon, according to University of New Hampshire research.
The season generally ends after a series of dry days in the 80-plus degree range.
Now that you know the basics, what can you do?
“The best defense that you can have is going to be your clothing in the summertime,” said Noah Haber, assistant manager at Adirondack Mountain Club’s High Peaks Information Center.
Dress as you would in tick country. Cover up as much of your skin as possible with light-colored clothing because black flies are attracted to dark colors such as brown and red. Wear thin pants, long-sleeved shirts, a head net and even glove liners to protect hands. Tuck your pants into your socks. You can treat the clothing with an insecticide like permethrin or bug spray.
You might look a little awkward, but it will be worth it.
“I promise, at the end of the day, if you’re wearing a head net and your buddy’s not, your buddy will be all covered in black fly bites on his neck and face and head,” Haber said, “and you won’t really care as much about how you look.”
He noted that bug sprays directly on the skin can provide some protection, but they wear off, especially if you’re active and sweating.
What are your tips for dealing with black flies? Have you seen them on the trails so far this season?
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Todd Eastman says
More blackflies would help with the alleged over-use of the HPW…
It would be helpful if we could get them to swarm only during mud season.
We were unprepared for black flys one time at the cedar River flow several years back in late June. It was like something out of a horror movie. It only takes one encounter like that to make you prepare for the next. Now I even carry my bug net when snowshoeing
Avoid all perfumes in soap, detergent, etc.
Listen to Bill Stains sing “Black Flies”.
Patti Brooks says
Good article. But, does anyone have advice for us horse back riders? We can’t really dress our horses in nets altho we do use nets that cover the entire head.
Bushwhack Jack says
Bugs are a fact of life in certain parts of the world just as sand is a fact of life rafting down the Colorado River. You can’t escape it but just as our guides on my recent trip through the Grand Canyon said about sand, I say about bugs. “You have to learn to be one with them.” I know, I know, it is easier said than done but everything is relative. My first encounter with bugs outside the Adirondacks came in 1971 when I climbed Denali. We climbed the Muldrow Glacier route and on the sixteen mile approach the mosquitos were ferocious. For fun we would slap our arm once and then count how many of the bastards we killed. The record was twenty-six. That record stood until 1993 when I was portaging a canoe three miles across Manitoba muskeg country to the Churchill River. The terrain was described by my friend Doc Forgey, “Think of a gymnasium filled with a foot of water and then throw in a few hundred half inflated basketballs.” Tricky stuff. The black flies, locally called white socks, because this particular species had white feet, were thicker than a swarm of locusts only smaller. I decided to see if I would break my Denali record. I slapped my forearm, collected the flies in my hand and started counting. When I hit forty I threw the rest on the ground in disgust.
Like I said, bad bugs is relative. So what do I recommend? Use bug repellant with DEET, it is the only type of repellent that really works. Wear a head net or jacket. (My favorite is the Canadian Bugshirt.) But most importantly become one with the bugs.
(You might enjoy this video of bugs on one of our canoe trips in Northern Canada in 2010. https://youtu.be/0-tudBeDGAM)
Todd Eastman says
Jack, bugs are the fodder of great stories, thanks for the reminder!
Barry Mcockiner says
Bats! A healthy bat population will make the bug problem manageable. A single bat can eat a thousand mosquitoes per hour. To those people who are afraid of them, get over your fear. Bats are, for the most part, harmless and misunderstood creatures that are very beneficial to us. They do not carry rabies at anywhere near the rate that most people tend to believe. Also, you cannot contract rabies through a close encounter or even direct contact. You are not even at risk unless an animal carrying the virus actually bites you. Your chances of being bitten by a bat are extremely low. The adirondacks should host the biggest bat sanctuary on the planet.
I assume bugs were just as bad during the mid 1850s when outsiders first became acquainted with the ADKs. Why did it ever become popular?? I believe I have mild PTSD from blackflies, skeeters, and deer flies in my previous life. No wonder I loved winter camping!
Todd Eastman says
Bugs and good mountain air were great alternatives to the disease ridden cities in petri dish summer heat and humidity…
Larry Master says
I’ve been using DEET-free and locally (Saranac Lake) manufactured “Bye Bye Blackfly” (also known with perhaps slightly different formulations as “No Bite” and “Wildwood” and “Carpe Insectae”) in stick and spray form successfully for many, many years to mostly avoid black fly bites. I just spray it on the rim of my hat, and if black flies are bad, on my skin. It is available in many local stores and on-line at http://allnaturalrepellent.com/. (I’m not convinced yet that it works as well for mosquitoes, and deer flies are a different matter.)
I have not gotten ticks on me for many, many years as I spray my outdoor shoes, socks, and pant legs once a month in tick season (in CT and in the ADKs) with Sawyer’s permethrin (0.05%), available in some hardware stores and on-line (e.g., Amazon Smile). See previous Almanac post by Worth Gretter on this subject (https://www.adirondackalmanack.com/2020/05/more-tips-for-avoiding-ticks-and-tick-borne-disease.html). It also works for chiggers in more tropical climates.
Phil Fitzpatrick says
I forgot to mention that the little buggers like to mate when its rainy and they want a good blood meal before hand. You may have noticed that they get most ravenous as the barometer is dropping before the rain.