In the wetter parts of the northern latitudes of North America black fly populations swell from late April to July, becoming a nuisance to humans engaging in common outdoor activities such as gardening, boating, camping, and backpacking.
– from a Department of Natural Resources website advisory
Life in the cloud
Late spring in the North Country is the time of life in the cloud. Not the ethereal cloud of happiness and hope and optimism. Or the “cloud computing” digital information cloud. Or the cloud of confusion that is fast becoming my normal state of mind.
No, the clouds in which we live during these warm days of May and June are the swarming clouds of black gnats that rise by the thousands from the streams, ponds, pools, puddles, and maybe even the dew-dampened grass to torment us, driving us to the brink of insanity with their buzzing, crawling, and biting. These buffalo gnats, one of the dozens of species of tiny black flies that infest the North Country each spring, remind us that every earthly paradise has its demons and devils.
Like vampires, buffalo gnats are hematophagic – blood-feasting monsters. The blood does not have to be human; other mammals and most birds are also unwilling donors. Entomologists tell us that black flies, both male and female, actually feed on the nectar of plants, but the females need to ingest blood to produce eggs. So they bite.
Attracted by body heat, or maybe by the perspiration on our skin or the carbon dioxide we exhale with each breath, buffalo gnats come swarming by the dozens, sometimes hundreds, landing on any exposed flesh, and chewing away mercilessly. The bites itch and sometimes swell and become inflamed, but much worse is the annoyance of miniscule bugs crawling into eyes, ears, nostrils, and every other body orifice they discover. On a typical morning walk with the dogs I will unintentionally eat a dozen or more, a source of protein I would rather forego.
Called buffalo gnats because, seen through a magnifying glass, their one-sixteenth-inch-long bodies appear to have humped backs, our local black flies are a member of the animal family Simuliidae, which boasts worldwide more than 1,800 species of winged, biting pests. All are apparently fast and prolific breeders. A few days after a one-inch rain shower, we can expect an invasion of tens of thousands, clinging to and eventually penetrating the screening on the east porch, ruining my mid-morning coffee breaks by enveloping me and the dogs in “the black cloud.”
Supposedly the life span of the buffalo gnat, and hence the duration of the peak of its infestation, is about two weeks. If so, it is the longest two weeks of the year. I would peg it at a month. The Department of Natural Resources experts insist that, in recent years, these extended plagues of black gnats are due to an unusual sequence of hatches, maybe connected to the new extremes of nature we are encountering in the North Country related to climate change. As if the increasing number of tornadoes is not warning enough.
We cannot escape their invading hordes; a female buffalo gnat will travel as much as 10 miles in search of blood. They are impervious to all insect repellents, even the much vaunted DEET that drives away mosquitoes and deer flies like social media sites drive away reasoned argument and civil discourse. Any of the half dozen “natural” repellents that I have tried – vanilla extract or vinegar for example – seem to work as a sort of marinade that makes me much more enticing and tasty to the vermin.
Having worn several types of mesh head nets and face masks I can attest that they are useless; no mesh is tight enough to keep them out, any gap in the netting quickly becomes a major black fly thoroughfare, and once the face net is filled with several dozen gnats you are unable to whisk them away, swat them, crush them, or dispose of them in any way short of sticking your head into a bucket full of water. Which is where their larvae live.
It does help to wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants, thin cotton gloves, and a solid-crown hat – not the most comfortable attire on a hot and humid summer day. One sufferer suggests smearing your arms, legs, face and head with a generous coating of petroleum jelly. Picturing myself as a greasy, pepper-sprinkled sausage roasting beneath the broiler of the midday sun I have not yet resorted to this solution.
Mostly, I swat and sway and swear.
Fortunately my body does not have an allergic reaction, or even much itching or swelling, as a result of buffalo gnat bites. That does not mean I am unfazed when I become the black fly’s equivalent of a street vendor’s hot dog stand during lunch hour in Central Park. Working in the garden or mowing the lawn, there comes the moment when my skin literally crawls and I flee shrieking (well, swearing) into the workshop to wipe gnats off my arms, face and neck with a soap-and-water soaked cloth.
Surely the buffalo gnat must fill some useful and important niche in the great pyramid of life. Tiny organisms are devoured by larger organisms, which are in turn devoured by ever larger predators higher on the food chain. If there were not these hundreds of thousands of black gnats on our farm, perhaps there would not be dozens of songbirds. While being eaten alive by noisome insects, I try to console myself with that rationalization.
But if I am the organism that is the preferred food of a creature as low and miserable as the buffalo gnat, what does that imply about my role the cycle of life, my rung on the ladder? Better if I do not give it too much thought.
More stories about wildlife, outdoor ventures, hunting, fishing, and life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot, Old Coots Never Forget, and Coot Stews , and my novel, Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com, and in paperback edition at the North Country bookstore Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, and through IndieBound independent bookstores.