Time to know thine enemy that gets under thy skin.
Now that spring has sprung, I prepare to return to the beloved Bruce homestead that overlooks Chedabucto Bay in Guysborough County, Nova Scotia, and also bone up on the four kinds of flies that will soon be sucking blood out of my itching body. All four have bulging compound eyes, nasty mouthparts, and an evil compulsion to invade one of the most beautiful spots on Earth for the sole purpose of torturing me and my family. They are deer flies, mosquitoes, midges-also known as sand flies, punkies, and no-see-ums-and black flies. Common names for black flies include buffalo gnats and turkey gnats. I have several other names for them, but none is printable in a family journal.
"In eastern Canada, only two species of black flies are severe pests," one scientific website reports. "The first to appear, with the bursting of the buds of the forest trees, is the Prosimulium fuscum-mixtum species complex. It lasts only two weeks, when the Simulium venustum-verecundum species takes over." These little monsters know exactly what they're doing. The Prosimulium fuscum-mixtum gang softens up us Bruces for the all-out raid by the Simulium venustum-verecundum muggers. Black flies begin their attack by swirling in an increasingly thick and busy swarm all around my head. Having thus aroused a certain panic in me, they go at my face, hairline, the spots behind my ears and, if I'm stupid enough to be wearing a sleeveless T-shirt, my arms. A mosquito lands, stabs, sucks and departs, but a black fly knows how to crawl around inside my shirt and under my socks, hatband, and even my watch strap. Having found what it regards as a choice speck of me, it uses a "blade-like mouthpart to slash the skin and feed on the blood." They're messy feeders. After I've mowed the lawn, my wife says, "You've got blood all over your face." The bloody spots swell, and itch for days.
A study of "attack rates" during June in Algonquin Park, Ontario, recorded that, in just one minute, 78 black flies land on a patch of human skin no bigger than the palm of your hand. Seventeen of the landings resulted in bites. I wonder what bug scientist was brave enough to be the guinea pig for that delightful little experiment.
Black flies are squat hunchbacks and, compared to the even sneakier no-see-ums, hairless. No-see-ums look like tiny mosquitoes. At night, lights attract them, and huge swarms squeeze through the screens of our old farmhouse to use the saws they carry around in their mouths on soft, white, innocent Bruces who are watching the CBC news downstairs or snoring upstairs. The creatures fly silently, and they're so small we can't see them while they're sawing away at our bodies and slurping up our blood. The itching just starts, and suddenly we're all scratching ourselves in unison.
Once, however, our daughter Annabel had the misfortune to actually see no-see-ums. On a freakishly hot night, she opened the screened windows in her bedroom to catch a breeze, turned on a hall light, and went to sleep with her infant son. From her ankles to her ears, a strange itchiness awoke her. She got up and, on the hall ceiling, saw thousands upon thousands of no-see-ums. She instantly remembered a hideous scene from a novel she'd just read: ants were eating a baby boy. Annabel slammed the windows shut and flailed away at the ceiling with a broom. It took her an hour to demolish the midges, and the slaughter smeared the ceiling with blood-doubtless her own.
If no-see-ums are so small you normally can't see 'em, deer flies are big suckers, and so fast you normally can't swat 'em. Their bodies are hard, plump, brown, black, orange, and more than a centimetre long. They zoom. They zig, zag, and then zap animals and humans alike. They whack you. Their bite feels as if a chunk of your flesh has been ripped out. They turn a stroll on our sweet beach into a torture session. To escape black flies, moose submerge themselves in lakes, but when I flee a deer fly by swimming underwater in Chedabucto Bay, I find that the moment I come up for air, it's hovering above my head, waiting to dive-bomb my shoulders.
By late summer, fed up with deer flies, black flies, and midges, we will seek relief at our house in Moncton. But haven't we forgotten something? Yes. As we discovered when we settled there two summers ago, Moncton is home to more mosquitoes than any other city in Atlantic Canada. They'll be waiting for us, zillions of them. Beating their wings 500 to 1,000 times per second, they'll be eagerly readying themselves to shoot their filthy hypodermic needles into our bloodstreams, and then suck our blood up through the ugly straws that entomologists call proboscises.
October is the kindest month.