Small, Dark, and Not Necessarily Handsome

100_2750Jeff sat in the other end of the 15 foot fiberglass water craft. It was an early evening during late May near the shores of Lake Ogascanon in the Abitibi-Temiscaming area of western Quebec. I was having difficulty seeing Jeff in the other end of the boat. From my vantage point I could see a fuzzy outline of the perimeter of his body. My face was covered with a veil no-see-um netting. This veil was part of the bug suit that I was wearing and it only partially obscured my vision; the real culprits were the thousands of black flies that filled the air.

Smitty squirmed in the middle of our fishing craft that day. I could see him fairly clearly slapping bugs as he tried to rig a new stick bait on his fishing line. I began to hum the old camping song “slap, slap, slap, the bugs are biting, cheer up camper I’ve got one.”

It is hard to imagine so many bugs unless you have actually encountered them. In this wilderness there was no shortage of black flies on that evening. Only our bug suits and the oncoming night could save us. Black flies go away when the black shroud of darkness covers the sky. They are usually replaced by hordes of mosquitoes who can be every bit as troublesome. We weren’t going to stop fishing. The walleye were striking for the first time on this trip so between casts we brushed the black flies off of our hands trying to keep the bites to a minimum and reeled in what fish we could. We would keep a few walleyes for our next meal, but most would be returned to the cold water in hopes that fishing for future generations would be just as productive as it was on this day.

Black flies are a curious feature of the outdoors. Outdoor enthusiasts often pretend that there are few bleak moments in their wilderness adventures. Those who travel significantly north, especially those who travel north of the 45th parallel and beyond, know that insects can be a serious problem, particularly in the spring. Some areas in the far north are known to be uninhabitable at certain times of the year because the insects are such a nuisance that they can create a serious impact on not only the enjoyment of the wilds, but the health of the person enjoying them. Millions of insects can hatch nearly simultaneously under the right circumstances and cover the landscape in a blanket-like fashion in search of the blood of animals.

Black flies require moving water. Here they lay their eggs. Moving water carries a lot of oxygen which provides critical habitat for the larval and pupae stage of the black fly. Black fly larvae can be found attached to rocks, vegetation, sticks, old decaying leaves, and all kinds of other debris as long as the water carries a lot of oxygen. It is mostly the individual species of black fly that will determine which larva is found on which medium. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of black fly species, each having its’ own requirement.

The larvae anchor themselves to some sort of debris with silk threads. They actually migrate downstream by producing a long strand of thread allowing movement within a stream bed to more favorable conditions. Sometimes there are a few individuals attached to a single thread, and sometimes there are thousands of individuals; again this is dependent upon the type of species utilizing the ecosystem. In most cases the larvae are attached to a rock or other debris at the end of their abdomens. Their head faces downstream and they use mouth brushes to filter food out of the moving water.

The larvae can go through multiple stages, gradually maturing until they form a pupa, the final transformation stage before they emerge to the surface as an adult black fly. Black fly larvae can stay in the larval stage anywhere from a few weeks to many months, depending upon the species. When it is time for the adult to emerge from the pupal case, it hitches a ride on an air bubble and when the bubble reaches the surface the adult fly emerges into its new environment above the surface of the water for a short stint in the open air.

The adult black fly has a short time in this new environment, usually limited to only a few weeks. During this time only the female bites larger animals for their blood. She actually slits the skin with her mouth, administers an anticoagulant, and drinks as much blood as she can. Blood has some use in reproduction, but recent research has shown that some species can reproduce with no blood at all. Female black flies of different species have different blood preferences. Some prefer humans, while others may prefer particular birds, livestock, or members of the deer family. After the male and female breed the female returns to her watery origin and lays eggs on some sort of debris in the moving water.

The prolific numbers of black flies in the north country may be, in part, due to an abundance of clean moving water that favors this tiny fly. Wilderness areas, with only small areas of human influence that could degrade water quality, seem to be some of the best environments for this petulant little insect. It is ironic that as humans have cleaned moving waters near civilization in an effort to improve the environment black fly populations have responded to the this new found environment with burgeoning populations.

As filter feeders, black fly larvae likely have a positive effect on water quality. Black flies are also an important source of forage for many insectivores.

Many species of black flies prefer cooler weather and don’t do well in warm weather conditions. As the sun gets higher in the sky and the days get longer black fly populations drop off to a point where they are negligible.

Dusk approaches as the sun sinks below the horizon on the opposite side of Lake Ogascanon. The palate of colors disperses as an absence of light starts to consume the sky. The black flies are finding their way to shore and resting in the vegetation along the banks. I can now see more than Jeff’s silhouette in the bow of our boat. He is fiddling with a tangled reel. He is still fully sheathed in his bugsuit. Smitty, in the middle seat of our boat, unzips the veil of his bug suit. He is seeking freedom from the restrictions of the bug armor we are forced to wear. For one brief moment I forget and think we are home free. Just one moment without the aggravating nuisance of bugs would be greatly welcomed. Without warning the buzz of a mosquito is heard, and then another, and then many more. Smitty zips his bugsuit veil shut, swears to himself, and the onslaught of a new invader is about to begin. I begin, once again, to hum, “slap, slap, slap, the bugs are biting” as I cast into the dark waters before me.

Originally written for the Heath Herald in May of 2009.

Lyrics to “Cheer up Camper”

Slap, slap, slap the bugs are biting

Cheer up camper I’ve got one.

Well I’ll punch him in the snout,

and I’ll pull his teeth all out,

and he’ll never bite a camper ever again!

  • Brianna Paganico

    A mate recommended me to look at this site, brill post, interesting read… keep up the cool work!

  • Ratty

    One of my favorite little hiking places I visited in Michigan had a terrible mosquito problem in the summer. I loved going there, but I had to avoid it when the mosquitoes were so big that their bites hurt.

    I missed reading your stories. It’s good to be able to get back online a bit now.

  • Wild_Bill

     Mosquitoes, black flies, deer flies, and no-see-ums can be a terrible impediment to enjoying the outdoors, especially in the far north.  There are some areas in the north that are considered uninhabitable by the Canadian government because the bugs are so fierce.  Nice to hear from you!

  • Out on the prairie

    Tough to fight these pests ,I even tried Listerine and vanilla. It is always nice to here from you.

  • Mike B.

    As far as the song goes, too bad it has about a million friends to pick up the slack!

  • Wild_Bill

     How did the Listerine and vanilla work?  The best home remedy I’ve used is Lemon Eucalyptus, it actually works  although reapplication is frequent. 

  • Wild_Bill

     We will always be severely outnumbered, best to accept this and cover up!

  • Anonymous

    As you began your post, I thought Jeff was obscured by fog.  Then, I read on.  I agree, there are more bleaker moments in the veld than not.  When I was in field school in New Mexico, one of our crew was sent to the hospital from a reaction to deer flies (that’s what we call them).  I got a head mask and continued digging on sites.  Even with all the insects, I still liked the toil.  Your detailing the life of the black fly shows that someone paid attention and took good laboratory or field notes.  Fascinating.

  • Wild_Bill

     The deer flies that you have in southwest are similar to the deer flies we have in the north.  Large, pesky, and can inflict a serious bite.  The black fly, of course, is a different animal altogether and outnumbers every thing else in the far north, except, perhaps, mosquitoes. 

    The black fly has a rich life, 99.99% aquatic.  My favorite fact is that as the adults emerge from the pupal case it rides on an air bubble to the surface.  Jacques Cousteau would have loved this fact.  An aquatic elevator.

  • Montucky

    Shudder! Luckily we aren’t particularly troubled with black flies here at least nothing like what you described, but we have plenty of mosquitos and I’m sad to say they are already hatching now. They are the only thing that can drive me from a trout stream in summer.

  • Wild_Bill

     Yes, shudder!  I have seen mosquitoes in western Quebec so thick that is completely unbearable without a bug suit.  Some areas are considered ‘uninhabitable” by the government due to biting insects!

  • Sandy

    I have only seen a couple  so far, but did see two deer tearing out of the woods into the hayfield one morning. Not that i miss the flies! I  managed to get the garden ready before they arrived, so am happy. All in have to do is install my seedlings.

    My husband and I used to fish the streams up around Jackman, so know how the flies can be in the woods. I have no desire to go further north!

  • Wild_Bill

     The Jackman area has both a lot of blackflies and mosquitoes, but I don’t have to tell you that.  The further north you go the worse they get (in general).  Above the 54th parallel as you approach tundra they are God awful.   It takes the right equipment to survive them!

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