Black flies put
bite on tourism
scourge of the Adirondacks.
JOHNSBURG, N.Y. - In the winter,
the temperatures in the Adirondacks sometimes drop to 30 degrees below
zero. In the spring, when the snow finally melts, the mud gets so deep it
can swallow the wheels of an automobile.
But those are minor inconveniences compared with the scourge that
arrives in late May, when bloodsucking black flies hatch by the billions
and force humans into an unaccustomed position at the bottom of nature's
"They fly in your eyes," said Judy Harry, a Johnsburg
resident who grew up in this ancient mountain range. "They fly in
your ears. They go up your nose, get in your hair. They actually remove
pieces of your flesh."
The black fly season - sometimes called the fifth season in the
Adirondacks - lasts for up to a month, including most of June. Few aspects
of everyday life escape the insect's influence. Hikers stay at home.
Gardeners stay indoors.
"You go through a very long winter and it finally gets nice
out," said Kathy Vanselow, whose Brant Lake company, Vectortech,
specializes in black fly control. "You only have a few months when
you can work outside in the garden or paint your house. And black flies
cut that time in half."
Relentless swarms of biting flies make parts of the Adirondacks so
inhospitable that tourism grinds to a halt. Some inns simply shut down for
the few weeks after Memorial Day. Golf course business falls off to a
trickle. Fishermen suddenly comprehend what it is like to be bait.
"They snicker at the flat-landers who come up during the bug
season," said R.W. Groneman, a spokesman for the New York State
Department of Environmental Protection. "Don't you know enough to
stay out of the woods?"
Unlike mosquitoes, which insert their tubular snouts directly into a
capillary like an oil driller sinking a well, the tiny black fly obtains
its blood meal by tearing through the skin with razor-sharp teeth, like a
bulldozer opening a strip mine.
Then, with its spongelike mouth, the black fly drinks up a pool of
blood. Its saliva, which acts as an anticoagulant, leaves a rivulet of
blood flowing long after the bug has gorged and flown.
A cloud of black flies can leave a victim with oozing, poxlike welts
that take weeks to subside.
"You can't get from your car to the building without being
surrounded by hundreds of them," said Linda Russell, who works at the
Elk Lake Lodge, an expensive mountain inn that closes for three weeks
rather than subject its guests to the torture.
Some victims have allergic reactions that cause horrendous swelling.
Barbara McMartin, an author of Adirondack trail guides, said her
daughter's ear once ballooned alarmingly. "It was larger than her
head, I think," she said.
In North America, black flies do not transmit any serious human
illnesses (though they do pass some infections among livestock). But in
the tropics, the flies transmit a parasitic worm that causes
onchocerciacis, the most common cause of blindness in the world.
In the Adirondacks, where the gnatlike black flies are more of a threat
to sanity, some proud locals regard their flies as the worst in the
Northern Hemisphere, making a validation of the hardships one must endure
to live in this harsh but beautiful environment.
One town, Inlet, went so far as to advertise itself as the Black Fly
Capital a few years back, until merchants suggested that most tourists
failed to appreciate the humor.
"You don't advertise your bad points," said Grover Hugelmaier,
the owner of an Inlet gift shop.
Some Adirondackers regard the insects almost benevolently - as nature's
way of keeping the human pests from overwhelming the wilderness.
"If we had warmer weather and fewer black flies, there would
probably be a million people living up here," said Gary Randorf, a
senior counselor with the Adirondack Council, a preservation group. As it
is, only 130,000 people live in the Adirondacks, an area the size of
Despite the bug's longevity - black flies have been around for 160
million years - humans have been trying to control the insects ever since
European explorers landed in North America and discovered the ravenous
insects. ("The worst martyrdom I suffered in this country,"
wrote a priest traveling in the north country in 1624.)
Early travelers to the northern woods, where the insects thrive in
clear, cool streams (some say black flies are the Maine state bird),
learned right away that swatting offered no relief to bugs that can alight
and chow down undetected.
Recreationists who flocked to the Adirondacks in the 1800s - some lured
by accounts that soft-pedaled the effects of black flies - filled smudge
pots with smoldering green twigs and lichen to drive off the flies. The
noxious smoke gave only partial relief. The smudge pots also caused a
dramatic increase in forest fires.
Nineteenth-century woodsmen also experimented with various elixirs and
repellents, some of which were as ineffective as the stuff that modern
chemistry has devised.
One repellent consisted largely of tar oil, said Bill Healy, a Ballston
Lake author and outdoorsman.
"After about two weeks of applications, it really got into the
skin and was pretty effective, as long as you didn't bathe," he said.
Victorian outfitters devised ridiculously encumbering solutions like
head nets, which are still in use today. But most garments are no match
for black flies - although long pants obviously are better than gym
"They even try to get in through the seams of your clothing,"
said William Webb, a Syracuse bookkeeper and hiker. "They're very
ingenious little critters."
After World War II, public officials embraced the idea of mass
extermination by aerial application of insecticides such as DDT and
But the chemicals tended to provide only temporary relief until a new
batch of insects hatched or opportunists blew in from a neighboring,
untreated area. They also indiscriminately killed all insects, including
beneficial pollinators such as bees.
In the last 10 years, all but three Adirondack towns have discontinued
aerial spraying and have begun applying a new bacterial agent, bacillus
thuringiensis israelensis (BTI). The insecticide, a naturally occurring
bacterium that is considered environmentally benign, kills black fly
larvae in the streams where they lay their eggs.
"A solution like BTI doesn't come along very often," said
Daniel P. Molloy, an entomologist who heads the New York State Museum's
field office in Cambridge, N.Y. Molloy spent 20 years studying black flies
and helped test BTI's effectiveness.
BTI is applied by crews that must trudge through the countryside early
in the season and pour carefully measured portions of the chocolatey
liquid into every stream where the black flies breed. In some towns, the
crews must bushwhack through miles of wilderness to treat dozens of
The aim is to kill the black fly larvae before they become adults -
specifically, adult females, which require a protein-rich meal of blood
before they can lay a batch of eggs. (Male black flies, like male
mosquitoes, do not bite.)
The insecticide is 90 percent effective, Molloy said. But the
application of BTI is labor-intensive and expensive. Only a few towns that
are heavily dependent on tourism say it is worth the effort.
"Without tourists, we have nothing," said George T.
Hiltebrant, the supervisor in the town of Webb, which includes tourist
areas such as Old Forge, which is in the third year of a BTI program.
"If we didn't have a control program, our golf course wouldn't do any
business in June."
But many residents in the impoverished region, who say they have built
up a tolerance to black flies from years of having their blood sucked, say
coddling tourists is not worth the cost.
Rather, the locals offer a plethora of folk remedies to reduce the
incessant buzzing, ranging from ingesting Vitamin D or garlic pills to
wearing light-colored clothing and not eating chocolate before heading
into the woods.
The approaches have varying degrees of success.
Healy, the writer and outdoorsman, recently was given an electronic
device that emits the sound of a dragonfly, a natural black fly predator.
"I used it along with a lot of bug dope," he said. "I still
got eaten alive."
Some people adopt a sort of rhythm method of avoiding black flies when
it's most likely they are feeding. Molloy said the bugs bite most during
the mornings and the late afternoons on cloudy, windless days when the
barometer is falling and the temperature is in the low 80s. The bugs are
inactive at night and do not like to go indoors.
Vanselow, the black fly control expert, said the insects are attracted
to carbon dioxide, so she tries to breathe downwind. "If you can
breathe so your exhales go downwind from your body, it makes a big
Others take a stoic approach.
"You just gotta endure," said Nelson Turcotte, a logger who
stood among the pile of yellow birch and hard maple he and his brother
Sylvain had cut down that day outside the town of Newcomb.
Turcotte took the positive view of inhaling the clouds of black flies
that hovered around his head. "You don't need to bring a lunch,"
he said, "because you eat bugs all morning."