As I write this, I can feel an itchy lump on my head just above the back of my neck the size of a golf ball, the legacy of a blackfly.
I am not alone. Just now, no topic is more talked about in Lake Placid than the uncharacteristic and irritating persistence of blackflies past their usual seasonal appearance. Everywhere in Lake Placid, people are creaming and spraying themselves with blackfly deterrents such as Black Fly Bye Bye, a highly regarded locally made product available in a deodorant-like stick, tinned cream or spray and Cutter's Skinsations. With optimistic expectations but only incomplete relief from these highly touted products, I searched for a more substantive respite in Eastern Mountain Sports on Main Street in the form of a bug net. So great was my discomfort and that of the people I observed swatting flies off themselves in the street that I feared a run on this product. While buying bug nets for myself and my bug-bitten husband and friend, other victims were lining up at EMS and phoning in orders in a race to buy a net before they ran out.
Bug nets here come just in black, already sprayed or not. They look quite chic worn with a brimmed hat, which also serves to keep the net out of your mouth. Fashion follows function. I received many street compliments on my new serviceable netted look.
Roberta Russell and her bug net
The blackfly, a tiny arch-backed bug also know as a buffalo gnat, breeds in fresh running water.
Once the female fly is carrying fertile eggs, she must nourish them with fresh blood. Their bites are shallow and accomplished by first stretching the skin and then tearing, cutting the skin and rupturing its fine capillaries.
An ingredient in the flies' saliva is an anticoagulant that also serves to numb the bite site. They come fully equipped for on-the-spot blood-sucking. Our delayed awareness of being bitten gives the fly more feeding time. Biting flies eat during the day and usually go for areas of thinner skin, such as the nape of the neck or ears and ankles.
When the anesthetic effect wears off, the bite usually begins to itch and swell. Depending upon the individual's immune response the swelling can range from non-existent to extreme.
The reaction can be so severe that hospitalization is required if one is particularly allergic and the bites are numerous enough.
The blackfly epidemic is not confined to the Adirondacks; it is happening all over the Northeast and in many other parts of the world. Regional blackfly associations have formed worldwide to address this insidious problem. Unless a responsive adjustment to the treatment is found, it will probably get worse in tandem with the changing weather patterns: typically more rain, a cold spring and a rapid warmup in May.
Human beings are not the only group suffering from the bite of the blackfly. In Wisconsin, there is a species of blackfly that is chemically drawn to the loon, attacking them this season like never before, causing the loons to abandon their nests in record numbers reaching 70 to 80 percent in some counties. Local people there say you can hear the loons crying.
The best thing to do when confronted with a recurring problem with potentially far-reaching effects is to study what works and learn from the experience of those that have been most successful at addressing it.
With that in mind, I was fortunate to discover John P. Walz, the president of the American Black Fly Association. He explained that the most effective defense is get the larvae before they fly.
"You don't want to calendar treat," Walz said. "You monitor the larval populations in the spring. You can see them when they hatch. The temperature has to get to 55 degrees or better before they go. Timing is everything. With a good larval monitoring program in place you are able to watch the larvae mature and treat right before they emerge as adults."
Spraying is a thing of the past. Treating the larvae while they are concentrated is much more effective. Instead, liquid BTI, a species specific deterrent, is applied directly to moving water.
Here in Lake Placid, John Reilly, program director of the Black Fly Control Department, said in a bulletin posted on June 18 on the town of North Elba website that the same BTI treatment as usual is being used by veteran technicians who are on or ahead of schedule. They began treating streams in the first week of April this year. He reports that the pupae, what larvae turn into before hatching, are not being found in streams now. The blackfly life span is about two weeks.
According to Mr. Reilly, "They should be disappearing soon."
The scourge of the blackfly can be ameliorated with careful study and climate sensitive measures. The expensive and labor-intensive prevention efforts that have been successful in the past for Lake Placid can be optimized by implementing adaptations to suit the ever-changing conditions wherever possible. For Lake Placid, it is well worth the effort.
I am looking forward to putting my new bug net into storage, fashion notwithstanding.