April 25, 2018
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Love them or fear them, leeches are a part of a woodland pond

By Julia Bayly, BDN Staff

Admittedly, I’ve seen the classic movie “The African Queen” one too many times.

When temperatures in northern Maine rise beyond my comfort zone and bring the humidity along for the ride, the image of Humphrey Bogart slogging through that marsh pulling his beloved boat only to emerge covered with leeches is enough to keep me on dry, hot land.

OK, that and a mild phobia when it comes to all things Hirudo, the genus of leech.

Never mind I have a perfectly lovely pond right near the house full of cool, deep refreshing water.

Trouble is, it’s also full of massive, man-eating leeches lurking just below the surface.

A bit of an exaggeration, but there are definitely resident leeches in my pond and while none are of trophy size — the largest leech in the world record books came in at 18 inches — their average 2- to 3-inch wriggly length is enough to keep my feet on shore.

I know they don’t hurt you and all it takes is a few shakes of salt onto the leech’s body to get it to detach, but that’s not the point.

The point is I would fall over in a dead faint if I ever discovered a leech latched onto my person.

Now there are those who say leeches have been given a bum rap over the years. I just choose to ignore such people.

A quick Google search for “leech” turned up more than 20 million results — everything from a site devoted to “lovable leeches” to another on the historical and current medical uses for the species.

There is also way more than I needed to know about the darker side of the squirmy parasites.

Leeches are, after all, parasitic, living off the blood from their host organism.

There are 650 known species of leeches and, while creepy, its bite is painless due to an anesthetic it injects into the host.

When feeding, a leech will gorge itself on blood up to five times its body weight and then simply fall off.

Now there’s an image that makes me want to do a flying cannonball into the pond and right into the plot of the next Stephen King horror novel.

Leeches have been used medicinally since about 1000 B.C. and centuries ago people actually would stand in lakes or ponds, wait for the leeches to attach themselves to their legs, remove them, put them in baskets and sell them.

I don’t care how bad the economy gets, that’s a cottage industry I will not be pursuing.

Regardless, some very modern and advanced medical facilities use leeches to assist in blood circulation treatments thanks to the leeches’ own anti-clotting enzyme.

There are even those who subscribe to what is known as “Hirudotherapy,” in which leeches are used in treating a range of diseases including heart, chronic lung and liver issues.

Not this fairy princess.

Nope, I fear I’m with Bogie on this one and concentrating my efforts on establishing a leech-free zone in the pond.

The best scheme was one suggested by my friend who grew up swimming leech-free in a rather infested western Maine pond:

Fill an onion or other netted bag with old meat and suspend it in the water away from the swimming area, this distracting the critters from living prey — namely my exposed skin.

When done swimming, simply remove the bag and discard it, and the attached leeches, in a safe manner.

Hmmm — I wonder if there are any intrepid later-day Bogarts out there willing take on that particular task?

Or I could instead find an air-conditioned screening of “The African Queen” somewhere.

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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