FORT KENT, Maine — Here’s a fun fact: There are more than 48 species of black flies in Maine.
I think all of them live on Rusty Metal Farm.
If you’re like me and battling hordes of the tiny, winged monsters that arrived like unwanted out-of-town guests Memorial Day weekend and overstayed their welcome, there’s a reason.
“I’m not sure if there are more out than usual,” said Charlene Donahue, entomologist with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. “But they do have a really small temperature range in which they bite and unfortunately it’s the temperature you have this time of year.”
Black flies, it seems, are happiest — and most hungry — when it’s in the 60s, which is pretty much the temperatures we’ve been getting up here in the north for the last several weeks.
“If it’s cooler than that, they don’t bite,” Donahue said. “But the minute it warms up and the sun comes out, all of a sudden they are there and biting.”
It’s cold comfort, but Donahue did say it’s only the females who bite — but they do so in order to get a blood meal to produce eggs and, by logical extension, more biting black flies.
As annoying as they are, Donahue points out they do play a very important role in Maine’s ecosystem.
Black flies, she said, breed only in clean, running water. Thus, a healthy black fly population means an abundance of clean water.
In fact, the insects are used by the state as an indicator of how clean flowing bodies of water are around Maine.
“They are also an important food source,” Donahue “They are filter feeders in the streams and anything that lives in those streams — tadpoles, other insects, trout — will eat them.”
Okay, so maybe they do have a role in Mother Nature’s scheme, but it’s kind of hard to appreciate when you are picking them out of your teeth following a bike ride.
A quick, informal survey among my friends indicates they are waging their own black fly battles this year.
Several have posted photos or videos of themselves surrounded by clouds of the insects while others have simply run up the white flag, refusing to come out until the hatch dies down.
They may have a long wait.
“May and June are the big time for black flies and most just produce one generation and then are gone,” Donahue said. “But the species Penobscotensis will produce multiple generations and they are around until the frost sets in in the late fall.”
So what’s an outdoor lover to do?
“I just cover up and spray Deet on my clothes,” Donahue said. “I also have a screened in porch.”
Wearing bug nets is an option, according to some of my friends, while others rely on old home remedies.
“I mix a concoction of epsom salt, mouthwash with alcohol and stale beer into a spray bottle and spray around my campfire,” said Darlene Kelly Dumond of Allagash. “Voila, no bugs!”
Fellow Allagash resident Nola Begin lights a smokey smudge of wood and other materials in a container that she then places on an old push lawn mower.
That way, she said, she can roll the smudge to wherever she needs it.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love that mental image.
Our pets are also not immune from the biting insects and the folks at Fort Kent Animal Hospital have been fielding a number of calls from panicked owners saying their dogs or cats have a massive case of ringworm. That’s because, according to Dr. Christiana Yule, bug bites on pets mimic the round, red rings caused by ringworm.
Yule recommends treating pets with anti-bug and tick formulas, but only those available from a veterinarian.
I can vouch for that — one year I volunteered at the animal hospital and bathed several dogs with open, running sores caused by cheap, over-the-counter pet flea and tick ointments.
Of course, it’s not just the black flies, the mosquitoes are out in force this year thanks to all the rain we’ve gotten. Somewhere, lurking wherever it is they lurk, the deer and moose flies are also preparing their annual assault.
Donahue said she deals with those large, biting flies by placing a strip of double-sided sticky tape on her ball cap, which traps the moose and deer flies and turns her into a sort of walking flytape.
Before long, all of the biting insects will be out and about for the few months of summer here in the north and Donahue said they have evolved to work in shifts with black flies out during the day when the temperatures are to their liking and the mosquitos coming online at dawn and dusk.
“There really is something outside all day,” she said.
But, like it or not, the bugs are part of our landscape here in Maine and maybe one of the reasons people think we are so darn friendly since it looks like we are waving at each other all the time.
In fact, we are swatting the damn bugs away.
“They are a nuisance,” Donahue said. “But we just deal with them and then they go away and we forget all about them until spring.”