Bloodsucking flies take big bites out of Adirondack tourists, economy

June 10, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

JOHNSBURG, N.Y. -- In the winter, the temperatures in th Adirondacks sometimes drop to 30 degrees below zero. In the spring, when the snow finally melts, the mud gets so deep it can swallow the wheels of an automobile.

But those are minor inconveniences compared with the scourge that arrives in late May, when bloodsucking black flies hatch by ++ the billions and force humans into an unaccustomed position at the bottom of nature's food chain.

"They fly in your eyes," says Judy Harry, a Johnsburg resident who grew up in this ancient mountain range. "They fly in your ears. They go up your nose, get in your hair. They actually remove pieces of your flesh."

The black fly season -- sometimes called the fifth season in the Adirondacks -- lasts for up to a month, including most of June. Few aspects of everyday life escape the insect's influence. Hikers stay at home. Gardeners stay indoors.

"You go through a very long winter and it finally gets nice out," says Kathy Vanselow, whose Brant Lake company, Vectortech, specializes in black fly control. "You only have a few months when you can work outside in the garden or paint your house. And black flies cut that time in half."

Relentless swarms of biting flies make parts of the Adirondacks so inhospitable that tourism comes to a halt. Some inns simply shut down for the few weeks after Memorial Day. Golf course business falls off to a trickle. Anglers suddenly comprehend what it is like to be bait.

"They snicker at the flat-landers who come up during the bug season," says R. W. Groneman, a spokesman for the New York State Department of Environmental Protection. "Don't you know enough to stay out of the woods?"

Unlike mosquitoes, which insert their tubular snouts directly into a capillary like an oil driller sinking a well, the tiny black fly )R obtains its blood meal by tearing through the skin with razor-sharp teeth, like a bulldozer opening a strip mine.

Then, with its spongelike mouth, the black fly drinks up a pool of blood. Its saliva, which acts as an anti-coagulant, leaves a rivulet of blood flowing long after the bug has gorged and flown.

A cloud of black flies can leave a victim with oozing, pox-like welts that take weeks to subside.

"You can't get from your car to the building without being surrounded by hundreds of them," says Linda Russell, who works at the Elk Lake Lodge, an expensive mountain inn that closes for three weeks rather than subject its guests to the torture.

Some victims have allergic reactions that cause horrendous swelling. Barbara McMartin, an author of Adirondack trail guides, says her daughter's ear once ballooned alarmingly. "It was larger than her head, I think," she says.

In North America, black flies do not transmit any serious human illnesses (though they do pass some infections among livestock). But in the tropics, the flies transmit a parasitic worm that causes onchocerciacis, the most common cause of blindness in the world.

In the Adirondacks, where the gnat-like black flies are more a threat to sanity than to public health, some proud locals regard their flies as the worst in the Northern Hemisphere, making a validation of the hardships one must endure to live in this harsh but beautiful environment.

One town, Inlet, went so far as to advertise itself as the Black Fly Capital a few years back, until merchants suggested that most tourists failed to appreciate the humor.

"You don't advertise your bad points," says Grover Hugelmaier, the owner of an Inlet gift shop.

Some Adirondackers regard the insects almost benevolently -- as nature's way of keeping the human pests from overwhelming the wilderness.

"If we had warmer weather and fewer black flies, there would probably be a million people living up here," says Gary Randorf, a senior counselor with the Adirondack Council, a preservation group. Only 130,000 people live in the Adirondacks, an area the size of Vermont.

Despite the bug's longevity -- black flies have been around for 160 million years -- humans have been trying to control the insects ever since European explorers landed in North America and discovered the ravenous insects. ("The worst martyrdom I suffered in this country," wrote a priest traveling in the north country in 1624.)

After World War II, public officials embraced the idea of mass extermination by aerial application of insecticides such as DDT and methoxychlor.

But the chemicals tended to provide only temporary relief until a new batch of insects hatched or opportunists blew in from a neighboring, untreated area. They also indiscriminately killed all insects, including beneficial pollinators such as bees.

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