The Star-Herald

What you think you know about black flies

They’re bad this year.

I’m not talking “bad” as in, oh, it’s too bad that a black fly bit me on my walk the other day. Ouch, boohoo.

No, this year going outside to mix with the annual black fly swarm is worse than ever, like suffering an epileptic seizure at the same time someone pushes you into the middle of a school of hungry piranhas. 

Like most folks, I base my knowledge of the biology and behavior of black flies on bits of arcane trivia I’ve picked up from hanging out with friends and family at the local watering holes and backyard barbecues. I’ve learned all sorts of strange things, and I don’t really have any idea if any of these supposed facts are true.

For example, one person told me with all seriousness that, “You know, when a black fly lands on you, his wings vibrate at just the right frequency so that you don’t feel the insect on your skin.”

If you say so.

A guy once told me, “Black flies have special antennae that are sensitive to the presence of blood, and that’s why they will worm their way through the thickest hair to get to the back of your head, because they know where the blood is closest to the surface.”

OK, who am I to argue with that? Sure, it sounds like a poorly executed example of Male Answer Syndrome, but to his credit, he said with confidence and he was wearing a baseball cap.

Then there was this odd factoid. “You know, black flies don’t actually sting. What they do is chop straight through a pore in your skin, take a whiz and then have a bath in the hole. That’s why there’s always a wad of blood left behind in your hair.”

Uhhhh. Right.

Here’s what my own experience has taught me about this ubiquitous insect’s behavior. When a black fly lands on your head, it probably turns toward an unseen camera and whispers, “Shhhhh. Be veeewy quiet. I’m hunting Mainers.” 

Black flies may seem like they are just buzzing and swooping around our heads, but it is actually a complex dance to distract the victim from noticing the industrious individuals that land on the three most sensitive spots on the body — the back of the neck, the fold of skin beneath the armpit, and the waistline of the underwear. It’s amazing that we fail to notice when this critter snuggles beneath our clothing, probably churning his six legs with all his might to wiggle between tight fabric and flesh. Usually when a bug lands on my body, I’m so hypersensitive to the touch that it sends me leaping to the other side of the room and waving my arms like a maniac. But a black fly goes undetected. Then it scoops out a pretty big hole in the tenderest parts of the skin, and I don’t even notice when it expels that divot of skin with the contempt of a greedy banker spitting out the tip of an expensive cigar.

As the insect feeds, it seems that the human host, an animal with the biggest brain on the planet, would notice streams of blood running down his scalp or hear the sounds of an insect jacuzzi party rocking away right behind his ear.

But people don’t notice, of course. Nope, the black fly has his hemoglobin hoedown, leaving the remains of a bloody buffet line and trashed hotel room, and we only realize we’ve been victimized when a friend remarks with casual concern, “Dude, is that blood on your head?”

So this year I have been making regular blood donations to the Society to Prevent Cruelty to Black Flies. I have accepted that I will spend the rest of the summer reeking of insect repellent. I’m resigned to the fact that insect repellent won’t repel the most determined black flies.

And I guess I have accepted my existence as the insect equivalent of a food truck.

Andrew Birden is the general manager of Northeast Publishing and the founder of Fiddlehead Focus. He can be reached at or 207-764-4471.

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