Stinging, biting bugs part of northern Maine reality

Posted June 16, 2011, at 9:40 p.m.

Ah, the dulcet sounds of summer in northern Maine: the haunting cry of a loon across a still woodland lake; the song of a robin as she approaches her nestlings; the steady breeze whispering through a stand of mature pines; the incessant, brain-numbing whine of mosquitoes, black flies and moose flies.

Wait, scratch that last one. And I do mean scratch.

Yes, for all its outdoor wonders and bucolic bliss, northern Maine does possess a darker side.

And it does, excuse my language, literally suck.

Consider the black fly (any member of the family Simuliidae) one of the most persistent and predictable harbingers of spring in northern climates.

Also known as the buffalo gnat or turkey gnat, the black fly has been reported in swarms so thick they have killed cattle or driven herds of caribou into stampeding madness.

After spending some time in my garden on a recent — and rare — sunny day, I can certainly sympathize with the caribou.

Since black flies lay their eggs in running water, and given the amount of rain we’ve had so far this season, I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb predicting a bumper black fly crop.

Anyone who spends any time outdoors in Maine knows black flies feed primarily during daylight hours.

When that sun starts to go down, out come my next favorite members of the class Insecta — the mosquitoes. Nice to know bloodsucking insects operate in shifts.

There are about 3,500 species of mosquito worldwide and I swear there are evenings when every one of them is in my garden.

Forty of those species live in Maine, and with the discovery of West Nile Virus — a disease carried by mosquitoes — in 1999 in the eastern United States, they’ve become a bit more than a nuisance.

Mosquitoes also carry heartworm, which is a major health concern for dogs and let’s not forget their historical role in the spread of malaria.

Medical issues aside, is there any more nerve-grinding sound than the high-pitched whine of a mosquito just as you are trying to fall asleep?

My friend Rene described a camping trip during which he and his friend were under such a mosquito attack in their tent they actually considered setting the tent and themselves on fire.

In my opinion, however, the worst of the worst are the deer flies — also known as moose flies and horse flies up north.

Smaller than a wasp and with banded wings, these devilish denizens of the woodlands not only sting, they use their knifelike mandibles to make actual incisions and then lap up the blood. Charming creatures.

Deer flies also possess a buzz that can sound more like a maddening drone as they hover around the body often just out of eyesight, preparing their attacks on any exposed patch of skin.

So what’s an outdoor-loving northern Mainer to do? Certainly not hide inside during these all too short summer months.

When it comes to our friends the mosquitoes, there are some broad strategies such as reducing their breeding places which are – believe it or not – any object capable of holding more than a tablespoon of water for seven to 10 days.

As for clearing an area of existing mosquitoes, there are products out there ranging from pricey “mosquito traps” (some run as high as $500) to the less expensive and fairly effective citronella candles.

Certain types of planted geraniums, catnip, basil, lemon thyme and lemongrass have also been shown to keep mosquitoes at bay.

When adding our friend the black fly into the equation, wearing lighter shades of clothing while outdoors seems to help as darker shades of blues, blacks, browns and reds seem to attract them.

There’s a reason my summer wardrobe becomes beige.

Some brands of outdoor clothing come already impregnated with black fly repellent.

When things get really bad, I’ve even been known to resort to the unflattering, yet highly effective head net — a simple fine mesh netting that fits perfectly over a ball cap or other hat and protects your personal space from all manner of biting insect.

So convinced was I of the effectiveness of netting that, before a trip to Labrador a few years ago, I invested in an entire bug netting ensemble — hat, shirt and pants.

Sort of a Cabelas meets Victoria’s Secret, if you will.

And let me just say, when you spend any time in a place like Labrador where a nighttime mosquito hatch covers a patch of lake roughly 30-feet wide and as far as the eye can see, there can never be too much netted attire.

There are, of course, all sorts of bug repellents — chemical and natural — on the market. Just Google “bug repellent” and check out some of the 928,000 results.

Old Woodsman I’ve found to work well if you don’t mind smelling like pine tar. Ben’s also does the trick, although after spilling some on a table once and watching the wood’s finish dissolve, I’m a bit leery of putting it on my skin.

For a time the Avon product Skin-so-Soft was a popular bug repellent. I can’t say whether it repels all that well, but I found it rather sticky thus turning me into a walking piece of fly tape.

The other evening during a cookout several of us resorted to standing in a thick smudge of campfire smoke to evade the bugs. A smelly, but highly effective method.

In the end, regardless of habitat control, personal attire, chemical repellents or natural remedies, biting insects are simply a part of life in northern Maine and the price we pay for living in this beautiful area.

They also make us look darn friendly. Folks from away think we are always waving at them when, in reality, we are swatting at all those damn bugs.

Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer, who frequently submits articles to the Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by e-mail at jbaylybdn@gmail.com.

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