by Wendy Mitman Clarke
We were somewhere off the lower Eastern Shore-well south of Tangier, if memory serves- when the bitey flies attacked. We'd left Annapolis the previous day at the start of the biennial Annapolis-Newport Race. The big boats had escaped the Bay's horse latitudes during the night. We, and a couple dozen more boats in our class and behind us, had not. The dying northerly faded to a zephyr and then a memory as daylight approached. There passed a weary time, as old Sam Coleridge put it. "Down dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down, / 'Twas sad as sad could be. . . ."
Now, it is true that the Ancient Mariner was beset by a lot of bad juju as he and crew were becalmed-a bloody sun, slimy things on the slimy sea, death-fires dancing at night and the like. But. He didn't have Eastern Shore bitey flies.
"Smack!" The first swat awoke me from my longed-for and well earned off-watch sleep. It was as hot as Hades down below and hard enough to rest without all that racket from above. Finally I gave up and climbed up the companionway into a cockpit that now resembled an abattoir. "Smack!" Streaks of blood and pulverized fly matter freckled the white gelcoat. My crewmates were wielding fly swatters, shoes, shirts and anything else they could grab. Their bloodshot eyes were lit up not unlike those of the ranting ancient mariner. It was an ugly scene, and it only got uglier; nothing, it seemed, could deter the relentless, medieval flies, not even death by Sebago. They just kept coming.
I don't remember how it ended. I'd like to say the insect corpses clogged the scuppers, but that's wishful hyperbole. I do know that eventually a breeze came up and we sailed out of there and into the ocean, where the most bothersome things were big and easy to see, like ships.
I've had many go-rounds with the bitey flies since then. They are as fierce and persistent as ever, and so am I. My killing technique is much improved; with coaching from my husband, who's native to the Bay, I have learned that my bare hands, clapped together quickly, are my deadliest weapons. I wouldn't say it's an even match-up yet-they still escape much of the time-but it's a fairer fight.
Anyone who's ever spent time cruising around the Bay knows whereof I speak. If it isn't bitey flies, it's something else-Japanese beetle swarms, mosquito squadrons (we are blessed with more than 50 species here) and chiggers (with a name like that, 'nuff said). Even the powerboaters among us, while often escaping the pesky buggers by traveling much faster than the average gnat, encounter the wild side of life when they anchor in some serene cove-like setting. Often it begins with a strange, far-off humming from that pretty wetland over there. . .
"Insects travel a tremendous amount," says Richard Bean, an entomologist with the Maryland Department of Agriculture-and, as it happens, a lifelong Bay sailor, who keeps his 24-foot Seawind catamaran in Galesville on the West River. "I guess the most unusual thing I've ever seen is I had a Goliath beetle fly into the sail and drop. When it hit the sail I thought a bird hit it."
Bean says he's seen millions of ladybird beetles (popularly known as ladybugs) on pieces of floating tide wrack in the Bay, and once about 12 miles offshore. "They come out of hibernation in the spring and start moving around, and I guess they get fatigued and they just land on these wracks," he says.
They and their brother insects outnumber us by several billion. A single bitey fly, more commonly known as a stable fly, can lay up to 2,400 eggs at a go. (More than 3,000 stable fly maggots per cubic foot of silage have been found on farms in Florida.) And a single mosquito can lay up to 300 eggs in one batch, and lay several batches.
While most species of bugs we encounter while sailing the Bay are most unwelcome guests, there are a few others that leave us speechless and delighted-like the monarch butterflies making their heroic southwest migration in the fall and the iridescent dragonflies that perch on the lifelines. At times my boat's headstay and shrouds have been ribboned with the finest gossamer streamers glinting in the sun-those are from moth larvae, Bean says, that are ballooning. "They put out this thread, and it catches the air and disperses them," he says.
Art Evans, an entomologist with Virginia's Department of Conservation and Recreation, is an avowed landlubber but isn't surprised to hear that it's buggy out there on the water. "I don't doubt that the light-colored surfaces of most boats are very attractive to various insects drawn to conspicuous and light-colored physical features to find a mate," he says. "This is not unlike humans going to a dance or a bar."
It's easy to get annoyed with bugs. Nothing can wreck a romantic candlelit dinner on the hook like a visit from a few millionAedes soli-citans(saltmarsh mosquitoes). But let's face it, when we're out there, we're on their turf. We're pretty much asking for it.
"You're right next to their breeding sites," Evans says. "As far as they're concerned, you're just laying out a buffet."
Indeed. And while insects like horseflies and deerflies do not routinely stray far from shore, they do seek prominent objects in a landscape, such as a group of trees in a field-or a boat in the middle of a cove, says Eric Day, manager of the Insect ID Lab at Virginia Tech. "If you're a deerfly looking for dinner, something out in the middle of a field could be a cow or a horse," he says. "Some flies will go to a prominent object and wait around for a female to fly in." Others like to "hilltop," or congregate on something tall sticking up in the environment.
"You're keying into their behavior," Evans says, "in that you're inadvertently creating high ground for them to find mates or a dry piece of real estate for them to rest on."
Whether you like them or not, insects play a critical role in the Bay's big circle of life-pollinating native plants and agricultural crops, providing food for the fish we enjoy catching, even preying on other bugs we consider to be pests. The average ladybug, for instance, may consume in its lifetime as many as 5,000 aphids-nasty, destructive little vermin, as anyone who's ever tried to grow a garden knows.
So in an effort to try and get along, here follows a brief and entirely subjective list of great insects I have known while boating on the Bay, good, bad and indifferent. If we all have to live together out here, we might as well know with whom we're sharing the cockpit.
Midges (family Chironomidae)
Midges suffer from mistaken identity. They look just like mosquitoes, but they have no biting parts. Humans' biggest complaint with midges (also known as gnats) is that when they swarm they do so in such abundance that you feel like you're in a B horror film. Often you can hear them coming; that's the high-pitched humming sound you hear from the nearby marsh, especially in the evening. In the morning you may find piles of them clustered on your boat's transom or anywhere there was a light source.
Midges only live long enough to mate and lay eggs, about four weeks. They lay eggs on floating aquatic vegetation as well as in containers and ponds, and they feed on decaying plant matter. They're an important part of the aquatic food chain; fish love 'em. In that sense they're highly beneficial insects.
The best way to deter midges from your evening anchorage experience is to keep lights to an absolute minimum. Mosquito coils also seem to send them in another direction.
Saltmarsh Mosquito (Aedes solicitans)
Let us defer to the great Mark Twain in regard to "those lawless insects" inLife on the Mississippi: "He said that two of them could whip a dog, and that four of them could hold a man down."
Maryland has 59 species of mosquito, Virginia 55. Of these, the saltmarsh mosquito is the one boaters are most likely to encounter. This species breeds in brackish and salt water, with the females laying eggs in batches (up to 300 eggs) on vegetation near the waterline. Saltmarsh mosquitoes breed in huge numbers and all at the same time, says Larry Lembeck of the Maryland Department of Agriculture's mosquito control unit in Salisbury. "About a week after hatching, they're going to emerge as adults all at the same time. If you go to that marsh when it's in full production, you won't be able to breathe without getting them in your nose."
It's hard to grow fond of mosquitoes, but you have to admire how precisely tuned the females are for their life's work-sucking blood to make more mosquitoes (blood has the protein required to make eggs). As larvae, the mosquitoes live in water and breathe through a siphon that penetrates the surface. The saltmarsh mosquito can travel up to 25 miles in search of a host-i.e. a large mammal like you. They can find you using a combination of tools: They smell with their antennae, which are particularly attuned to carbon dioxide, the gas we exude as we exhale. As they get closer, they home in on the scent of lactic acid emitted from your skin. Thermosensors on their antennae and mouths help them find your capillaries. Their saliva has an anticoagulant so the blood flows easily, and their heads are equipped with a pump to do the sucking.
So, how do you avoid, or at least deter, such a vexing critter while on the water if your boat lacks screens? For one thing (and this is true of nearly all insects), anchoring farther from shore means fewer bugs. Our cruising sailboat's deep draft usually keeps us well off the beach, and we rarely have trouble with mosquitoes; the worst times have been on our Bertram 31, which lets us anchor close to the beach-and puts us smack in mosquito city at nightfall. We've had great success with Off mosquito coils and citronella buckets, although you can't use them down below, and if they go out. . . .
Most bug sprays work by confusing the mosquito's sense of smell, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture website. The repellent DEET, for instance, works well because it inhibits the mosquito's ability to smell lactic acid, so the bug can't "see" you as a host. Oh, and those electric zappers? Studies have found that only three percent of zapped bugs are mosquitoes, while more benign and beneficial insects like moths become unfortunate bycatch.
Chiggers (family Trombiculidae)
Chances are you will not encounter chiggers if you stay safely aboard your boat. But let's say Fido needs a trip to the beach, or you're anchored near a place with hiking trails or picnic areas just begging for a visit. And when you come back your skin is on fire and covered with small red welts. You've met Mr. Chigger, also known as a jigger or red bug. As the Ohio State University extension service website succinctly puts it: "Probably no creature on earth can cause as much torment for its size than the tiny chigger."
Chiggers are larval mites, which is to say they're not insects, but arachnids, related to spiders and ticks. They're only about one-twentieth of an inch long (about the size of a pinpoint) and are bright red. They hang out on places like grass stems and leaves awaiting a host, which they sense (like the mosquito) through carbon dioxide. You brush against the leaf and they grab on.
Unlike mosquitoes, they don't actually suck your blood-nor do they burrow under your skin, as the common myth has it. Instead, they seek a pore or hair follicle and secrete a digestive enzyme that breaks down your skin cells, which then become lunch. The enzymes also cause surrounding tissue to harden, making a sort of straw for the chigger to better suck up its food. If allowed to stay, a chigger will feed for up to three days before dropping from the host. After that they transform from their larval stage and become eight-legged nymphs-which, as it happens, feed on mosquito eggs, among other things. Adult females start laying eggs (about 15 a day) in spring when temperatures reach 60 degrees.
The best way to avoid chiggers is to avoid the places they hang out, which in summer seems to be just about anywhere-grassy areas, stream beds and areas of low vegetation. Insect repellents with DEET are effective deterrents for about three hours.
After they latch on, the itching will start in three to six hours, and it can last as long as a week if you don't take care of it quickly. If you find chigger bites or think you've been in their neighborhood, take a hot soapy shower as soon as possible or at least rub down with a towel to dislodge them, since they can spend hours on a host before settling in. Treatments like Benadryl or ointments with hydrocortisone can help with the itching if you've already been bitten. The old home remedy of dabbing the bites with nail polish to suffocate the chigger is pretty much hokum since the little devil hasn't actually burrowed in, though it may relieve itching just by keeping the skin from the open air. According to the University of Florida's (UF) extension service website, there have been studies showing that the itching can be relieved by rubbing meat tenderizer on the welts.
Horsefly (genusTabanus), Deerfly (genus
Chrysops), Saltmarsh Greenhead Fly (genus
While the Eastern Shore bitey fly is, in my unscientific opinion, the nastiest one out there, these three cousins deserve honorable mention. Strong fliers all, they're not above traveling some distance to find a "blood meal," and if several of them happen upon you at once they can send you running for the hills (or into the water). All three types are attracted to dark objects and are active during daylight.
Saltmarsh greenhead flies are a particular plague along the shore since they breed in coastal marshes. "We have collected in traps over one thousand greenhead flies per hour, all seeking a blood meal," says a Rutgers Cooperative Extension Service paper called "The Greenhead and You." Greenheads are less prevalent on the Bay than elsewhere, but they're voracious biters and it pays to know them. They're about an inch long with enormous bright green eyes.
Horsefly and deerfly eggs are laid in masses on vegetation, rocks or sticks, but nearly always over water or wet ground. Females lay up to 1,000 eggs in a mass. Adult horseflies grow to nearly an inch and are black or dark brown. Deerflies are more triangular shaped and grow to about half an inch. The wing of the deerfly is also mottled with dark patches, so it almost looks as if it has stripes. Horseflies are easier to swat, since they're bigger and a little slower-though for the same reason it's rather intimidating to do so with one's hand.
Both horse- and deerflies bite hard into your skin, using mandibles that work like scissors. And, like mosquitoes, they pump anticoagulants into the wound to help blood flow easily. Aside from trying not to stray into their territory, there's not much you can do to avoid these types of flies once they find you, other than going mano-a-mandible.
Stable Fly (Stomoxys calcitrans)
What I call the Eastern Shore bitey fly is better known as a stable fly or dog fly. "It looks just like a house fly but it has a sword," says Gaye Williams, an entomologist who runs the insect identification lab in the Maryland Department of Agriculture. Specifically, it has "a long bayonet-like mouthpart for sucking blood," according to the UF website. In most species of flies and mosquitoes, only the females bite. (Go ahead and make snide comments, but they need the blood to form their eggs.) But not so with stable flies. Both sexes suck blood, and they do it with maddening persistence until you either jump overboard or dispatch them. They're so relentless that, to escape them, animals sometimes wade into the nearest water until only their heads are exposed.
Stable flies breed in soggy hay, grasses or feed, or in piles of moist fermenting weeds or grass cuttings, and also in seaweed lines along a beach. Their life span ranges from 22 to 58 days, depending on weather. According to the UF website, adult stable flies can fly up to 70 miles from their breeding sites, and they often congregate on beaches in the early morning. With the Eastern Shore's preponderance of farms and agriculture industry, it's no surprise that boaters most often encounter these little lovelies on that side of the Bay-though I've also done battle with them well into the middle of the Bay.
How do you get rid of them? Prayer and apocalyptic cursing sometimes work. Best bets, though, are an expertly wielded fly swatter or the hand-clapping technique mentioned earlier. Even bug sprays with DEET don't intimidate them, Bean says. "I think biting flies are immune," he says. "They're crazy and come after you no matter what."
Northeastern Beach Tiger Beetle (Cicindela dorsalisdorsalis)
The chance of you or me seeing one of these on the Bay is slim, and you certainly won't see one on your boat. But you may, while walking the beaches of the middle Bay and especially south, be a giant in their sandy domain. Since they're a federally threatened species, you might want to know what to look for.
The beach tiger beetle is about a half to three-fifths of an inch long and has sand-colored wing covers and long legs built for speed. According to A.J. and Robert Lippson'sLife in the Chesapeake Bay, you're most likely to spot them on bright sunny days along the water's edge where they do most of their living. Their life cycle takes two years to complete. The female deposits her eggs just under the sand's surface at the high-tide line. The larvae hatch in late July and build clever burrows in the sand like small tubes, using their heads as the lids. When an unsuspecting sand flea or other amphipod wanders by, they can grab it in an instant. And they have two curved hooks that anchor them into their burrows, preventing predators from snatching them. The burrows average about four inches deep and are covered during high tide. Adults scavenge dead fish and crabs, though they also eat lice, fleas and-go tiger beetles!-flies.
Beach tiger beetles historically swarmed beaches along the East Coast from Massachusetts to New Jersey and on both sides of the Chesapeake. Today, nearly all of them have disappeared north of the Bay (only one site, in Martha's Vineyard, is known to exist north of Maryland). The Bay still has several populations, but humans are making it difficult for them to survive. They need wide, undisturbed, fine-sand beaches to thrive, so shoreside development, off-road vehicles on beaches, and beach stabilization, among other things, threaten their habitat. Since 1990 they've been listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus)
Spend enough time moving fairly slowly on the Chesapeake and you'll see amazing things. Few are quite as wondrous as the sight of thousands of bright orange and black monarch butterflies, making their tenuous but determined way southwest during their autumn migration. Often they land on the lifelines or deck, taking a breather from their 2,000-mile-plus journey to Mexico. Other times you'll see them blowing by like rogue missiles, their delicate wings seeming completely unsuited to the task that life demands of them. One day last fall on a trip from Solomons Island to Annapolis we counted some 100 monarchs in about four hours. Though they passed us one by one and seemed solitary, they're among millions.
Monarchs travel across the Bay in September and October, heading for their wintering sites in Mexico and the Gulf states. In March they begin their return trip, though only one percent survive it. They return north by June, lay their eggs on milkweed plants and die. Then comes the caterpillar, and during a six-week cycle of molting, eating and finally metamorphosis in the chrysalis, an adult monarch emerges to continue the cycle. In fall, they begin their journey south following paths known only to them by instinct, and we are lucky enough to witness a small part of it.
Also known as punkies and biting midges, these tiny pests suck blood from humans, reptiles and even other insects. According to the pithy Ohio State University extension service, "Their bite is far out of proportion to their size." Their larvae can be found in sand, moist mud and decaying vegetation in salt- and freshwater marshes as well as on beaches and in ponds and streams.
"Those things will really ruin a weekend if you get in a wrong place and your screens don't work," says Maryland entomologist Bean. "They'll go right through if you don't have a tight seal on the screen."
The good news about no-see-ums is that they evidently don't like to travel much, which means you might be able to simply move a little to avoid them. Again, the farther from shore, the better.
Japanese Beetle (Popillia japonica)
I know, you're thinking, why are we talking about Japanese beetles on boats? Aren't they usually devourers of gardens and crape myrtles, and notoriously lousy fliers? Yes and yes. But I've seen them make it out to my boat in droves, dotting our dark green sail covers and awning, crawling all over the deck and even getting into everyone's hair. "We were just getting bombarded by Japanese beetles, and they would drop down into the cockpit," says Bean, recalling a particular time he was sailing near Baltimore. "There are so many of them, they just kind of move around up in air currents and start looking for other food sources."
"They have no survivability over water," says Art Evans of Virginia's Department of Conservation and Recreation. "But if they're near the water and happen to be blown out over water and have found what to them is land, they're going to land."
The Japanese beetle is a foreigner, first found in the U.S. in a nursery in New Jersey nearly 80 years ago. In Japan the beetle has natural predators to keep it in line; not so here. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than $460 million a year is spent trying to control the beetles, which have spread across the country and devastate turf grass (in their larval stage) and plants (as adults). The good news is they don't bite. The bad news is there's no real good way to get rid of them, other than flicking them overboard one by one as fish food.