Black Fly Research

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(Host) Commentator Willem Lange has been using himself as bait in the search for a bloodthirsty creature that lives in northern New England, and he’s found thousands of specimens.

(Lange) I’m camping for the weekend on the forty-fourth parallel, halfway between the Equator and the North Pole, searching for a fierce creature with the scientific name of Simulium venustum. I do this by standing outside my tent in a T-shirt – very much like a goat tethered over a pit in an old-fashioned tiger hunt.

Try to imagine a beast shaped like a bison, but with six legs, and two transparent wings fastened just beneath its hump; a mouth full of butcher knives and a rubber hose; and such a vampirelike lust for blood that it occasionally ranges as far as 50 miles in search of it. That’s what I’m looking for.

Of course, it isn’t quite as big as a bison. It’s only about three-sixteenths of an inch long, and its vulgar name is the white-stockinged black fly. I wouldn’t know a fly with white stockings from one with argyle. It’s just that this particular fly seems to be the most avid for human blood. The ones hovering in clouds around the tent right now could be any of the more than 30 species extant in Vermont. Whichever they are, their intent is clear.

I wish I could have persuaded Mother to come with me. For some reason, black flies are attracted to her – much the same way, now that I think of it, that I was first time I saw her. Canoeing with her is wonderful: all the bugs are at her end of the canoe. On the other hand, she hardly paddles because she’s mostly flailing the air.

I’ve been reading lately about the research and control efforts of John Burger, an entomologist at the University of New Hampshire. Operating mostly under a grant from the Balsams resort hotel in Dixville Notch – whose bookings can be affected by as much as a quarter of a million dollars by the presence of black flies – he’s discovered and developed a bacillus that, when introduced to the running water required by black fly larvae, destroys their stomach lining and reduces their numbers by as much as 98%.

As a fisherman, I wonder what percentage of a trout’s diet is composed of black fly larvae, and whether the bacillus infects other insects. A researcher at the New York State Museum, Dan Molloy, says that not only are fly larvae an incidental food source, but the bacillus is specific. If an overdose is applied to a stream by accident, it still kills only true flies. May fly and caddis fly larvae, which are misnamed and are not true flies, are unaffected.

Well, I’m about to go back outside in my dark blue T-shirt, calling in flies from as far away as Sherbrooke. I’ll put Old Woodsman’s fly dope on my left arm and Avon Skin So Soft on my right, and five minutes later count the flies on each. The things I do for science!

This is Willem Lange up in the Northeast Kingdom, and I gotta go back to work.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire.

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