Black Flies: Out for Blood

Mosquito season has officially kicked off in Wisconsin, meaning the omnipresence of repellents for the foreseeable future.  If mosquitoes have redeeming properties, it’s that they at least serve as food for a wide variety of animals and can even act as pollinators in some cases.  When mosquitoes bite, they do so with surgical precision that would make a phlebotomist green with envy.  Simply reading about mosquitoes might make you want to scratch, although on the spectrum of biting flies, things could be much more sinister…

Also very active at the moment in Wisconsin are black flies (Family Simuliidae) and our state is home to 30 species of these tiny sanguivores.  Black flies—or “buffalo gnats” due to their hump-backed appearance—are deceptive creatures for their small size (~ 1/8″ long).  You usually don’t notice them as much by sound like buzzing mosquitoes, but when they land to feed, these tiny flies are vicious.  Rather than using needle-like mouthparts to delicately probe for blood vessel like mosquitoes, black fly mandibles resemble the jagged edge of Rambo’s survival knife which they use in a “slash-and-slurp” approach.  These mouthparts slice into flesh to create a pool of blood which they then consume.  If this sounds unpleasant—it is!  Reactions to black fly bites can sometimes be severe, with fever and enlargement of nearby lymph nodes.  In addition, their sheer numbers can take a psychological toll and can be a strong test of one’s fortitude if you must be outdoors during peak black fly season.

Adult black fly taking a blood meal. Photo Credit: Credit: D. Sikes, via Flickr.

Of the 30 species in Wisconsin, only a handful actually bite humans.  Other species are “picky eaters” with a strong preference for other animals.  The species, Simulium annulus, specializes on common loons and in “bad” years the constant pestering can force adult loons to abandon their nests.  Other birds, such as purple martins and bluebirds can face high rates of chick mortality when the black flies are bad.  Pets, like dogs can commonly get bites and large pinkish welts on the soft skin of their belly.  Dairy cows can be harassed to the extent that feeding and weight gain is greatly reduced and milk production all but ceases.  In some cases, large animals including deer, cows, and horses have been killed outright by black flies.

With that said, if you’ve ever encountered an outbreak of black flies, you’d likely remember.  If you haven’t bumped into black flies before, you’re perhaps in a good spot on the map.  The larvae of many black fly species tend to be associated with streams and rivers, meaning that geography can play a role with outbreaks.  Within the state, areas near the Wisconsin River and other large rivers and streams tend to see the most intense black fly activity.  Black flies can be even worse to the north.  These insects can be notoriously bad in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in June, and in Canada black flies have even been enshrined in film and a surprisingly catchy folk song.

Black fly larvae in a river. Photo credit: GlacierNPS via Flickr

If there’s good news about black flies, it’s that the adults are short-lived.  Wisconsin tends to see a blitz of activity spanning a 2-3 weeks in late spring.  When black flies are active, the best approach is to layer up with long sleeves, break out the repellents like DEET, and use a head net if needed.  If you’re in an area with intense black fly activity, cutting back on outdoor activities until these insects run their course for the year may be the simplest option.