Park Perspectives: These bugs bring me down

Illustration by Jerry Russell

By Tom Woodman

Some cultures have rituals in which individuals venture out into the wilderness to test their character and attain higher levels of being.

In the Adirondacks we have a version of this rite, but it’s not reserved for a special few. Anyone who ventures outdoors between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day takes part, whether they choose to or not, in the ritual test by black fly.

And though I walk the trails and paddle the waters with open mind and good intention, I fear I fall short. I think of myself as a peaceful soul who respects all life. But each year, during the black-fly test, a hostile, aggressive aspect of my nature is revealed. A blood lust.

I set out to peacefully persuade these creatures to move on and find another to devour. My hiking companion would be a suitable target.

But there’s no reasoning with black flies. And when that effort fails, I try to lay waste to them; swatting, smashing, crushing the creatures as they swarm around me, feasting behind my ears and crawling under my protective layers to bite where the moon don’t shine. Thinking back later from a peaceful, bug-free sanctuary, I’m troubled by how easily I sink to their level. But in the heat of battle, I’m positively medieval. I’d impale and display the little bug heads of my victims on miniature spikes if I had time.

I worry about what this slaughter is doing for my karma, but I take some comfort in knowing that this is not a unique failing. All around me, and down through the years, my fellow humans, and even animals, each in its own stage of enlightenment, have been made lunatic by black flies.

As with so many things, the newest generations have it easy. Great humanitarian researchers have developed new weapons and tactics. BTI, a natural bacterial larvicide, has done a lot to reduce the swarming hordes in areas where treatment is practical. For those seeking chemical answers, compounds like DEET and Permethrin seem marginally more effective than the sprays we used in my youth.

In spite of these scientific advances, I keep searching for the silver bullet, the philosopher’s stone.

As an example of how desperation can lead to innovation, I offer a tactic I developed in my youth but sadly found impractical. Noticing that when I swatted a black fly, his comrades tended to shy away from his carcass, I experimented with leaving the gory smear on my forearm. Sure enough, it repelled the next fly to zero in on me but unfortunately only by a matter of millimeters. For my strategy to work, I’d have to sport a virtual second skin of squashed flies. I have my limits. My research did have some benefit, though: I felt like I was doing something.

In talking with fellow combatants, I get the sense that feeling engaged is a key element in surviving the rite of the black fly. At the Adirondack Mountain Club’s aptly named Black Fly Affair this spring I met a hiker who had heard that mint-flavored mouthwash had anti-black fly properties. He had procured a small spray bottle, filled it with the mouthwash and misted the mint around his head. It worked! For a moment, anyway, he stoutly maintained that it had. But then he paused and said, “Well, at least it made me feel like I was doing something.”

If nothing else, it enhanced his backwoods aroma.

This is the opposite effect from a potion that seemed more popular back in the day: Old Woodsman Fly Dope. This commercial repellant wasn’t appreciably better at warding off flies than any other, but there could be no doubt that you were, indeed, doing something. Its penetrating odor (described by one writer as a combination of kerosene, creosote, pine tar, and moose urine) was so strong it brought the wearer to the verge of seeing visions and drew tears from other hikers encountered on the trail.

A search of the literature not only bears out the theory that at the very least we all want to feel like we’re doing something. It also reveals the common threads of lethal vindictiveness and strong odors.

A writer to Mother Earth News touts his method of wearing a hard hat smeared with oil in order to attract and kill the flies, which then form a coating on the hat that seems to play the same role that impaling them on a stake would. “Here are thousands of black flies that won’t be breeding,” it proclaims. The writer, a Maine resident, reports that he started by using baby oil, which worked, but that he eventually came to prefer chainsaw bar oil because it doesn’t drip on his shirt. He testifies to having thirty years of success.

Ernest Thompson Seton in his 1922 volume The Book of Woodcraft and Indian Lore shares a recipe for black-fly repellant that is one ounce pine tar, one ounce oil of pennyroyal, and three ounces Vaseline mixed cold in a mortar. If you’d like you can add 3 percent carbolic acid or some extra pine tar.

I confess to not knowing what pennyroyal is, but I’ve discovered that it apparently is well known among the alchemists that brew up black-fly dope. No less an authority than Boy’s Life refers to it. In the July 1929 issue, writer Edward J. Morrow speculated on ways that Robin Hood and his Merry Men might have dealt with black flies: “Maybe the Miller’s Son, Friar Tuck and Will Scarlet had some oil of pennyroyal and sprayed the leaves of greenwood trees every morning.”

It turns out that Pennyroyal is an herb in the mint family. My expert from the Black Fly Affair was working in a long tradition without knowing it.

I’ve been prepared to bring my new knowledge to bear against the black flies, but it turns out that the rain and flooding we experienced in the Adirondacks this spring has had an unexpected benefit. With all the standing water as breeding areas, the mosquitoes have been so fierce I almost don’t notice the black flies.



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The Adirondack Explorer is a nonprofit magazine covering the Adirondack Park's environment, recreation and communities.

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