We’re pretty tough folk here in Maine. At least, that’s what we like to tell ourselves around the woodstove of a night after spending all day felling trees with axes, snowshoeing out to the back forty to check on livestock during a blizzard, or pulling lobster traps in sub-zero cold. (Yes, that was hyperbole. Mostly. A lot of it has to do with how much applejack or coffee brandy has been drunk around said woodstove.) Still, as I say, we’re pretty damned tough. There is one thing, though, that reduces even the stoutest among us–those intrepid baseball, softball, and track moms–into a swatting, swearing frenzy: a good, solid, thick cloud of blackflies. And right now–these priceless days of lovely May weather–is prime time for the little bahstids.
I am reliably informed by Google that some of you will have no idea what I’m talking about because this member of the insect family Simuliidae doesn’t live where you are. O blesséd are you! Gather ye crocodiles and scorpions while ye may! If you’d like to experience the Maine woods in May, you just send me a stamped, self-addressed mailing envelope, and I’ll send you a starter collection so you can breed your own population. In brief, this is what you will need to know about your new
- Only the females bite. The males are strictly enablers to insure on-going generations.
- Blackflies do not have the dainty proboscis of mosquitos through which to sip your blood. No, indeed. These critters have serrated jaws which they grind back and forth until they chew through your skin, all the while injecting an anesthetic so you can’t even tell you’ve been bitten until you’ve got a bloody swelling nearly the size of a golf ball behind your ear. Once the anesthetic wears off, you will itch for three days, three weeks, or until you go mad, which ever comes first.
- Unlike mosquitos, which do the decent thing and warn you by whining that they’re coming in for an attack, blackflies are stealth fighters. You may see the swarm of them, but unless they’re brazen enough to land on your hands, arms, or nose, you won’t be able to slap them in time. And you’ll never catch the ones that crawl inside your clothing to leave a line of welts around the top of your socks, your waistband, or your bra. Frequent preemptive slapping and crushing of these areas does work, but looks odd to passersby.
- Since blackflies are attracted to the carbon dioxide in your exhalations, it is strongly recommended that you do not breathe when outdoors in the months of May and June.
- Do not wear dark clothing, since if you’re breathing and your “hide” looks dark, you might be a bear, moose or any other poor animal blackflies feed on in addition to humans.
Keeping these points in mind should assure you get the most of out of your blackfly collection.
For those disinclined to dabble in raising blackflies, who only want to repel the buggers, any standard insect repellent containing DEET is said to work. I leave it to your own good judgment whether you want to spray or splash yourself with a known carcinogen. If you’re just going to be out for an afternoon once a week, maybe it’s worth it to you. Since I’m working outside on every available sunny day during this busy gardening season, however, I’d have to wear the stuff far too often to risk it. I do spray my hat and clothing with it, but I’m not comfortable about applying it directly to my skin.
Back in the day, I used something other gardeners swear by, Avon’s Skin So Soft. It did work, but the perfume was so strong it often gave me a headache. Then I tried a lotion with citronella, which also worked but made me reek like a tiki torch. Both of the above were nearly impervious to water, I should add, which meant I could never really get rid of the smell. On Monday mornings when I went back to school after a weekend of gardening, my colleagues and students always knew exactly what I’d been doing, though most were too polite to say anything.
Then I tried a bug suit, donning a long-sleeved shirt and pants of fine mesh and adding headgear of the same material draped over a wide-brimmed hat like a beekeeper wears. It was hot, scratchy, and stuck to my sweaty skin most unpleasantly. Worse, the blackflies followed me right inside the suit, crawling through every chink in the armor they could find.
Finally, however, I came across the product I’ve been using for years now and can enthusiastically recommend as an effective herbal repellent which smells wonderful. It’s called Lewey’s Eco-Blends (originally sold under the name Buzz Off!), and it’s the recipe of a Native American woman named Alison Lewey, who used to make it in her kitchen here in Maine. It has rosemary, thyme, lemongrass, geranium and peppermint essential oils in a soybean oil base. One application is effective for about four hours. I don’t say it will deter every crazed blackfly–they will seek out any unprotected flesh, including eyelids, which swell alarmingly and get very sore–but the oil does keep off most of them. Plus, it smells like a summer herb garden, clean and refreshing, which is aromatherapy in itself.
So that’s how tough Mainers deal with blackflies. And, if all else fails, there’s always the old woodsman’s recipe of pine tar, kerosene, and moose urine. So you go collect that moose urine, and I’ll just set here and have some more applejack. Ayuh.