Column: What Has Six Legs and a Mouth Full of Scissors?

  • A black fly. (Photograph courtesy of Alan Eaton, UNH Extension)

For the Valley News
Tuesday, June 05, 2018

East Montpelier

In the last couple of weeks, in between the usual political complaints on Facebook, I’ve noticed several about the annual assault of black flies: folks pestered to tears as they’ve tried to garden, a homeowner barbecuing in long pants and a head net, and occasional swollen and irresistibly itchy mounds at the sites of red bite marks.

An old Adirondack saying goes, “If it ain’t the black flies, it’s the snow flies.” Our elderly, retired snowbirds manage to avoid the latter; but coming north again in the spring, they have to face the former if they’re to be outside at all in June or July. Yet, as much as folks complain about them, our central New England black flies aren’t even a patch on the swirling hordes that await every warm-blooded animal north of about 45 degrees, from upper Maine to the Arctic coast of Canada.

The late Wade Hemsworth, an Ontario songwriter and singer as much a part of the fiber of our northern neighbor as Hudson’s Bay blankets, poutine and Screech, left a pair of especially wonderful songs, both of which are delightfully available on YouTube. The first (not germane to this topic, but still not to be missed) is The Log-Driver’s Waltz, sung by Kate and Anna McGarrigle; the second is the famous The Blackfly Song, describing the desperate travails of an unsuspecting surveyor’s assistant sent for the summer to help a crew camping and working in the north Ontario bush.

Black flies hum and buzz through the opening bars of the song, reminding me of a video that a friend, Dr. Robert Chapman, of Hanover, shot one July day beside a rapid on the Burnside River, at about 66 degrees north latitude, 110 degrees west latitude, in the Canadian Arctic. The video is ostensibly focused on a happy member of our canoe group, trying to muscle a lusty lake trout to the shore with a beautifully curved fly rod; but the flies are really thick and noisy in the lens and microphone. You can’t watch it without itching. Occasionally, when I screen this video for audiences, I sneak looks at them, and they’re almost all scratching their heads and wiping their forearms.

In 2001 our crew paddled the Leaf River on the Ungava Peninsula. The river follows exactly the tree line, between taiga and tundra, and for some reason the flies love it. On July 13, I wrote in my journal: 9:30 p.m. in camp; dinner and dishes done; beautiful sunset; bugs chewing. The black flies have gotten inside my clothes; underpants blood-soaked.

Two days later: 5:45 a.m. — Clear, calm, and buggy! All of us agree we’ve never seen black flies and mosquitoes this thick. I’m not certain that’s true; the outlet of Kathawachaga Lake in 1989 was pretty impressive, but they’re as bad here as I’d ever want to see them.

Those flies on the Leaf flew up our noses, into our ears, and covered the surface of our coffee cups or stew bowls with a thick layer of freshly steamed protein. Those of us wearing head nets had to raise them quickly for every bite or sip. But they still got in — and then they couldn’t get out!

The black fly is in the order Diptera, meaning just two working wings. Under a glass they look like a tiny winged bison with six legs and a mouth full of scissors. That’s how they (females only) slice their way in, leaving their itchy toxin as a gift. Some people attract them more than others. If my wife and I paddled anywhere in fly season, the cloud hovered around her end of the canoe. I loved it; she didn’t. Folks looking for a reason God might have created them have offered the suggestion that they pollinate low-bush blueberries. Recent science has failed to substantiate this. But at least they do keep the tourists away.

Flying, biting insects are attracted most strongly to overweight, middle-aged, sweating white men. I take some comfort in having passed middle age; but they’ve never bothered me terribly, anyway. Over the years I’ve devised a strategy that I discovered inadvertently on the very difficult Tree River on the Canadian tundra north of the Arctic Circle.

We’d just completed a day-long killer of a portage and were giving off all kinds of aromatic enticements to the local flies and mosquitoes. There was a bit of a wind blowing, and I noticed that each of us had a sort of windsock of flies trailing to leeward from his head. If you turned toward the wind, only the strongest could latch onto your ears; turn away, and they filled your face. So I strolled, apparently casually, just to windward of my nearest pal, and found, mirabile dictu! that I’d shed my cloud of flies, for a few moments, at least.

When my victim figured out what I’d done, he began the same routine, and pretty soon the scene resembled a sort of silent, slow-motion do-si-do as four guys each tried to get to windward of at least one of the others.

Backs of my hands and wrists on fire from black fly bites. They get under my watch, and it’s all bloody underneath. Also around my neck, under the collar.

Bad as that seemed at the time, I’d go back there in a heartbeat if I could. And they cured me of ever complaining again about bugs.

Willem Lange can be reached at willem.lange@comcast.net.