Black Fly Madness

Black fly preparing for a feast

Finally, a day without rain this weekend. My husband and I wasted no time getting outside to do some much-needed yard work and the black flies wasted no time making sure they got a good meal out of us. I tried to get into the zen of pulling weeds, but I guess there’s nothing zen about jumping up and down, flailing your arms about and swearing loudly that you detest the little #%@s!

When I finally gave up and escaped indoors, I discovered more than a dozen bites on my neck and  shoulder, along with a couple more above my eyebrows and under each ear. At least I didn’t find any ticks crawling on me as well, but once I saw the bites they suddenly began itching. They still itch. Next time, I’ll be better prepared!

Black fly emergency preparedness

  • Cover up well. Black flies like to crawl up sleeves, into waistbands, under socks and up pants
  • Wear light-colored clothing
  • Wear a bandana around your neck
  • Wear a shoulder-length head net
  • Work outside in the early morning or late evening when they are supposed to be less active. (Of course, you have to worry about the mosquitoes at night.)
  • Try using a mosquito repellent, although you may need to keep reapplying

Black fly bites hurt because the fly cuts a hole in the skin and injects anti-coagulants to make a larger pool of blood from which to feast.  GROSS, I know! Some people don’t seem to be bothered at all by the bites, while others are more sensitive. When my daughter Katharine was a toddler her eye became so swollen from a black fly bite we took her to the ED.  A little Benadryl and she was fine but what a sight, poor baby.

A dramatic reaction to a black fly bite. Luckily, Katharine's blankie always made things better.

Robin Follette, editor and publisher of Maine Nature News, maintains a Black Fly Report, which shows that right now they are pretty bad in almost every county in Maine.

Robin says there is no precise end to black fly season in Maine, but they tend to go into “dormancy” by mid-July.  Unfortunately, they come back for a spell in the fall, although usually there are fewer than in the spring.  She also told me, “A hard winter doesn’t affect the number of black flies that hatch in spring. They breed in running water, which seldom freezes completely and they can survive in water as cold as 32 degrees.

More black fly trivia

  • There are 1500 to 1800 known species of black flies
  • About 40 species are common to Maine
  • Not all black flies feed on the blood of other creatures, some are partial to nectar. In our neck of the woods, only about six species of black flies are known to bite
  • The species that don’t bite still annoy because they like to crawl into ears, eyes, noses and mouths
  • Black flies can spread diseases, such as river blindness but supposedly, not in the United States
  • Although rare, deaths have been reported because of severe allergic reactions and from inhaling a large number of flies
  • Black flies will fly up to 10 miles in search of blood
  • Black flies are tenacious — oh, you already knew that!
  • The black fly is the unofficial Maine state bird, according to humorist Tim Sample

Black flies are not ALL bad

  • They need to breed in fresh, running water so they are good indicators of unpolluted water
  • They help pollinate flowers
  • They are a good source of food for certain birds, bats and dragonflies

Even so, black flies are mostly a nuisance, but in her Black Fly Report Robin encourages us to “Get out and enjoy Maine nature — even the black flies. You can tell everyone you’ve experienced the black flies and lived to tell about it.”

That’s me! And now, I’m going to soothe my itchy bites for the umpteenth time with a little witch hazel.