By JANET REYNOLDS
If you’ve spent any time outdoors in the Adirondacks in black fly season, you’ve likely seen someone doing—or probably even done yourself—the “Adirondack Wave.”
Recognized for its frantic, repetitive swatting at the air around a face and neck, maybe even erratically dancing around while doing it, the wave is just one of many attempts people make to keep these annoying insects at bay.
An annual spring rite of passage, the scourge of the black fly lasts roughly from Mother’s Day to Father’s Day. As the weather heats up, the flies die off. While black flies certainly don’t have a monopoly on making outdoor life in the Adirondacks miserable—raise your hand if you’ve suffered from a mosquito swarm or deer fly bite—these insects are uniquely annoying when they’re around. They swarm and have a killer’s instinct for biting. And, man, those bites can hurt.
Jimmy Cunningham, assistant professor and director of the Wilderness Recreation Leadership Program at North Country Community College, remembers one time when he was in the St. Regis Canoe Area as part of a wilderness therapy program for troubled teens.
“The flies literally drove the group insane,” he says. “We had to evacuate one student for medical treatment. We were all just sort of pacing around camp in a circle to avoid anything landing on us. It started raining at the end of week and we were rejoicing because when it’s raining steadily, you won’t see black flies.”
So what’s a person to do short of staying indoors for a month and potentially missing some of the best trout fishing and least-congested hiking? The Adirondack Explorer rounded up some tips. But first, under the theory that it’s best to know your enemy, a little Black Fly 101. Black flies are semiaquatic insects. They spend the majority of their lives as larvae in flowing fresh waters. The larvae have labral fans that they hold out into the water to snare drifting food particles, eating almost indiscriminately what they catch in their fans. “Anything from diatoms and inorganic matter to possibly other invertebrates,” says Carrick Palmer, a master’s student at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry.
Female black flies lay 500-600 eggs a year. The eggs hatch anywhere from within a few hours to a few days. Sometimes eggs that are laid later in the season can overwinter to hatch early the following spring. Adults that emerge in May live 10-35 days, Palmer says.
Water temperature is the most important factor for development of black fly larvae, Palmer says. “They need a particular range to maximize their growth,” he says, noting that the ideal range for water temperature is between 20 and 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
Black flies need clean, well-oxygenated water to survive, so a large black fly population in any given waterway can also indicate the stream is ecologically healthy. (In other words, they’re not all bad.)
Once hatched, black flies are hungry. Females need blood to lay more eggs, and so the seasonal torture begins.
It’s a battle that has become increasingly important as the tourism industry has played an ever-bigger role in the Adirondack economy. Nobody, from guides to hotel owners, wants people to think May and June are verboten months for an Adirondack vacation.
The methods for treating black flies have come a long way from the early 1980s when airplanes filled with methoxychlor (a chlorinated hydrocarbon insecticide) and mixed with fuel oil as a carrier sprayed the mixture far and wide. “People would be outside and all of a sudden they would be sprayed,” says John Riley, program director of North Elba’s Black Fly Control Department. “It was not specific. It killed mosquitoes and a lot of other things. There was an uproar about it.”
The discovery and use of Bacillus thuringensis israelensis, or Bti, has dramatically changed the mitigation landscape. A naturally occurring bacteria in the soil, Bti was discovered in Israel in 1976, Palmer says. Adirondack applications began in the early 1980s.
Here’s how it works. Black fly guts are alkaline. The Bti protein crystal is slightly acidic. Technicians, who are certified after taking a course with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, place the crystals in the waterway with black fly larvae. The larvae eat it and within 24 hours their midguts basically dissolve. It is considered non-toxic by the federal government.
North Elba’s department has a crew of five or six besides Riley. Because black flies can fly two miles if there’s no wind, they start by focusing on a two-mile radius from the center of town and move out from there.
“Everyone has a certain area,” Riley says. Each technician looks for a larvae population of a certain size and then does a stream discharge measurement to decide how much Bti to add.
They add 10 milliliters every 100 yards or so—roughly five or 10 parts per million.
“We treat everything from a trickle to the Ausable.”
The process, which costs North Elba about $70,000 annually, has been repeated for the past 26 years. The crew typically starts in early April on snowshoes or post-holing, and treats each spot two or three times to cover multiple hatches.
Hotspots like manmade dams or beaver dams may get treated several times. Overall the North Elba crew covers 100 square miles and about 250 miles of stream. “One hundred square miles sounds big,” Riley adds, “but in the millions of miles of the Adirondack Park, it’s not so much.”
Riley takes the usual precautions when he’s on the trail—no dark colors to attract flies, no cologne or fancy-smelling shampoo. He avoids DEET products but is a fan of Herbal Armor. He also uses a bug net and sometimes a bug shirt.
But he’s a realist about how much he can stop a determined black fly. “I’ve been trout fishing in the Adirondacks and come home with more than 200 bites on the back of my neck,” he says, “but I caught a bunch of brookies, so it was worth it.”
Variations on North Elba’s program are echoed in towns around the Adirondacks. The number of towns applying for black fly control permits from the state DEC varies each year. Sixteen towns have permits for 2019. This is down from 2002 when the number had grown to 29.
Ultimately, the black fly war becomes a personal battle. Guides, who need to make sure their clients have a positive experience while out in the woods, have a variety of suggestions for dealing with black flies.
Andy “Zippy” Seligmann, who is a guide with High Peaks Cyclery in Lake Placid, is a fan of thin long underwear under his shorts and tucked into his socks. “Then they’re not on my legs,” he says. “My arms I usually let go until they’re really annoying.” He recommends a bandana or a hat with ears for headgear. He usually avoids bug spray, opting instead for peppermint oil. “I put it on my clothes,” he says.
A touch of realism is good, too: “Just expect to eat some black flies,” he says.
Cunningham is a fan of full rain gear. “In my experience it’s just hard to control unless you cover yourself,” he says.
Mike Crawford, an independent full-time water fowling and fishing guide, recommends a baseball cap with a white handkerchief soaked in something like Ben’s repellent. “Drape it over your head so it comes down both sides of your face,” he says. Then put on the baseball cap.
Attitude is critical, say Crawford and other guides. “The mental is 75 percent of the battle,” he says. “You have to wrap your mind around (the fact) that there are going to be swarms of flies that are going to be trying to eat you. You have to tune them out.”
Crawford starts prepping clients as soon as they call to hire him. “If they want to catch brook trout in May, I have to repeat it over and over again. It’s going to be buggy,” he says. “Then I keep my fingers crossed.” Still air at 75 degrees is what he hopes to avoid.
Crawford recalls one canoe trip he had to abort. “The dog had his ears all blown up and swollen and my face was all swollen,” he says. “The conditions for black flies when they’re right are brutal. It’s bad for humans but good for the food chain. The fish feed on them like mad.”
People have been trying their own hand at creating black fly repellent ever since George Washington Sears, better known by his pen name Nessmuk, recommended “a good, substantial glaze, which (he was) not fool enough to destroy by any weak leaning to soap and towels,” according to an online article posted by the Adirondack Experience museum. The “recipe” required simmering 3 ounces of pine tar with 2 ounces of castor oil and 1 ounce of pennyroyal oil.
Experienced guides have mixed feelings about black fly repellents. While some recommend DEET, most advise not putting it directly on your skin. Instead, place it on your clothes.
The all-natural options are plentiful, both online and in stores around the Adirondacks. Gail Todd of Man in the Moon Herbals near Oneonta has been making herbal tinctures and using essential oils for years. “I came up with it out of desperation,” she says, remembering one fateful afternoon in her garden about 15 years ago. “They were flying up my nose and into my ears.”
She started with a recipe, Lyle Bippert’s Bug Be Gone and Bass Attractor, which she found in an herbal book from about 40 years ago. She eliminated the anise seed oil that was purported to attract bass to a lure, and lost the alcohol base. She added tea tree and rose geranium oils, to repel ticks and mosquitoes as well.
Lemongrass and peppermint oils may also help keep biting flies at bay.
Martha Burns, a lifelong Adirondacker, has been making Mountain Martha’s Zof! Summertime Solution, among other natural medicinal remedies, for years through her business, Balsam Ridge Herbals and Gifts. Burns’ all-natural bug repellent started with a recipe from a friend that Burns amended. Her mixture, which was originally called Buzz Off, includes eucalyptus, rosemary, pennyroyal and citronella oils mixed in a pure virgin olive oil base.
“I don’t make a lot of money,” she says. “I make it to help people.”
So there it is: Proper clothing, mental prep, the bug repellent of your choice—they all help with the struggle.
At least until the deer flies and horse flies arrive in July.