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.
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.
“…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.”
Wouldn’t that be ice?
Wouldn’t killing larvae and reducing blackfly numbers in an area using Bti also ultimately reduce numbers of their natural predators in the same area? Seems like a losing battle plan.
James Marco says
Boreas, Yup. I am sure she meant air temperature and not water temp. So, that part of the article is senseless. The best I have ever been able to measure flowing water was 34F. The air temp was -15. I would guess Janet means around 45-55F, which is more consistent with my experience with the critters.
She also doesn’t mention permethrin. Sawyers is pretty good. It is not a repellent, but black flies don’t like it. They get a dose and within a few seconds they fly off, literally loosing interest in feeding. Works well on mosquitoes and ticks, too. I limit DEET to my hat, hair face and hands. Everything else is pretty much covered up. They MUST eat through your skin, to drink the resulting blood with their mouths, they do not have a proboscis like a mosquito. Stay out of the brush. You’ll stir up a swarming party in no time.
No, killing larva with Bti leaves them available for fish. Gotta feed the brookies, hey ha… But, there is some detriment to fly eaters (warblers, swallows, etc.) They don’t have the afternoon feast. Generally, anytime below 55-60F you will be fairly safe and not swarmed by them. Just an occasional bunch that are a little slow to eat. Below 55F, they start looking like zombies, stuck to something, but very sluggish. Nights are great, non of those pests.
The natural predators I was thinking of were other small aquatic invertebrates that feed on the larvae while in the streambed. But, as you say, brookies gotta eat as well. Will fish eat dead larvae?
James Marco says
Yeah, brookies don’t care. They take my poor offering of wet flies. Hell, I have seen them eat pine needles from cedars. Maybe they are after the caddis flies, but I doubt it. One fish I caught was bulging. He had a piece of rotted wood almost half his size in his stomach. I have no idea what he thought he was eating. Crabs, hellgrammites, etc all eat detritus. I’m sure they do well on larva…either dead or alive. I thought about it back when it was introduced. But, they cannot kill them all. What would an ADK spring look like without the blackflies?
Mosquitoes hunt by smell and mosquito repellents clog up their noses work well for mosquitoes.
Black flies, deer flies and horse flies hunt by sight and hence mosquito repellents don’t work on them.
There is some evidence that a zebra’s stripes reduce fly bites. My next experiment is to try a refery’s striped shirt.
Don Boink says
Thanks for the info on black flies. Missing from the advice part are a couple of remedies I found effective working on my camp thirty years ago. Skin-so-soft did a good job . I’ve also heard that the paper put in the drier called Bounce is good to rub on skin and put in your collar.
Nice warm weather is the biggest help.
Warren Harman says
I live just outside the blueline and our town treats with BTI. However, when hiking or fishing within the blue line I’m at the mercy of the female blackfly. I’m a proponent of DEET mainly on my clothes and I do get bit. However, I have a remedy for taking the itch and pain away from a bite. Spit (or otherwise wet the bite) and sprinkle on meat tenderizer (either Adolph’s or McCormack’s) and rub it in. The itch will be gone until you rub it again which will require retreatment. This remedy also works on mosquito bites. Having a remedy for the consequences of a bite helps to relieve the mental anguish caused by the blackfly or mosquito.
Don Boink says
The Spring of 1990 I was building our camp on the Hudson River near the Glenn. My remedy for black flies was Skin So Soft liberally applied to exposed areas. Maybe it just made it hard for them to land or get a grip but to me it made life bearable while working and sweating. Taking a hike, use of a bug net worked well also. Some folks claimed a certain type of fern wrapped around the neck kept them off.
Warm weather seems to shorten their season. That’s the Adirondacks, love it or leave it.
George R Gallagher says
James Marco – In response to your closing sentence: “What would an ADK spring look like without the blackflies?,” my response is: “It would be heaven without the hell!”
Margaret Szeliga says
I’m allergic to those black flies and as a child was rushed down the mountain to the ER (twice since my mother love her hiking) because my face swelled shut with hives. Living in Minnesota now and wondering what is the real name for black flies so I can find out if they are up north here.
yep we got em down in Minneapolis suburb called Bloomington right now bad my puppy was yard maybe 20 min on a line and was covered with hundreds of these biters the poor pooch. Freaked me out, now I am wondering how long til I get a city fined for not mowing the lawn because I don’t want to get swarmed too. Maybe I’ll wait til dark let it get below 50degrees hope neighbors won’t mind a late mow.
MITCHELL EDELSTEIN says
I use a bug shirt for gardening and lawn mowing. If only they would make a bug shirt out of white netting. Why only dark green? The dark color attracts the Black Flies and heats you up.
Physical barrier superior to all bug sprays or treatments. You just can’t bushwhack in a bug shirt.
Can you imagine how bad life would be if black flies bit at night?
What is this called? This is a trick my dog taught me. When the blackflies would be getting on her nerves she would come and sit close to me. Then after a few minutes she would get up and quickly move to another spot. It took a few times for me to realize what she was doing. By her moving quickly to another spot, she would leave all her flies behind. I used to call it “shagging your flies” but somehow that doesn’t seem like the right term. Would anyone know what this sneaky little maneuver is called?
And of course I had to teach everyone else. Pulling the same stunt is actually quite funny. After the deed is done, I would sit, watch & wait. You know how it goes. First it’s a random wave in the air until it gets to the point where they just can’t take it anymore. Reaching their limit causes them to get up, all the while they have both hands going now, and cursing my little friends who been visiting.
But what is the act of dumping your flies on to an unsuspecting person called?
Bill Miner says
Late May and all of June – Black Flies. June , July & August – Mosquitoes. July, August & September – Deer Flies. Thought biting insects were done? October Deer Lice