Greenhead Flies | What are Greenheads?
But above and beyond these physical characteristics, and the fact that greenhead flies will indiscriminately attack horses, cows, dogs, hogs, and deer, this fly is notorious mainly for one thing: the pain it inflicts in large numbers on beachgoers at the height of summer. Make that two things, because like The Terminator, this fly is relentless. It will not stop until someone pays the price.
Stories of encounters with greenheads have a dramatic quality usually reserved for plays written by one-name ancient Greeks. But the blunt truth is that these creatures can ruin a day, or days, at the beach.
Often during peak greenhead season–generally early or mid-July to mid-August–beaches will post warnings about fly conditions, like some weird variation on the surf report. At Crane Beach there’s another sign, too: No Refunds. But it’s not about singling out one beach or another; any gathering spot near a salt marsh–beach, restaurant, or home–is potentially vulnerable. Sometimes it’s just a matter of degree.
“All salt marshes on Cape Cod provide habitat for greenhead flies,” says Gabrielle Sakolsky, entomologist and assistant superintendent at the Cape Cod Mosquito Control Project. “Our largest marshes, adjacent to the large barrier beaches of Sandy Neck and Nauset, are the worst, because they have the largest amount of larval habitat. There are no immune spots.”
If that’s the case, I suddenly have more questions. Can greenheads be outsmarted? What makes them so rabid in the first place? Why is the pain so fierce? And don’t we have any options?
In search of answers, I’ve found myself knee-deep in a salt marsh with John Stoffolano, Ph.D., professor of entomology at UMass Amherst. It’s early August: prime tabanid time.
Every summer, Dr. Stoffolano and his students head into the dark heart of greenhead territory–the broad and glorious salt marshes that spread out around Pine Island, in Newbury, Massachusetts, not far from Crane Beach. Here they collect thousands of flies from the shiny black wooden boxes that stagger on slender legs across the marsh, like dark, square animals imagined by a Cubist carpenter. Back at UMass, they conduct research on greenhead behavior and physiology. “We’re the only ones doing this kind of work,” Dr. Stoffolano told me when I first visited his office in Amherst, months earlier. “At one time there was a lot of interest.”
That was before scientists learned that tabanids do not in fact carry Lyme disease or AIDS, that they’re merely a horrible nuisance. But in the 30-plus years he’s been researching these greenhead flies, Dr. Stoffolano has learned a lot, and he’s got the office to prove it. Bookshelves overflow with the chaos of his profession–research materials, scientific papers (many his own), and reference books–the contents spilling onto the floor, the desktop, any available surface.
In sharp contrast to its occupant, who is neat, self-contained, and, it turns out, pretty funny, with an adventurous streak. Tales of tsetse flies in South Africa, encounters with biting beach flies in the Seychelles, and experiences at a Zulu healing ceremony weave in and around talk of greenhead flies. His mother is part Mohawk Indian, and Dr. Stoffolano’s interest in indigenous cultures and insects has gradually evolved into a college course on cultural entomology, in which he uses insects to teach diversity, while incorporating references to art, music, mythology, and archaeology. Traces of Indiana Jones, minus the bullwhip.
Over the next few hours, I get a crash course in greenhead flies: Tabanids 101, if you will. For instance, I learn that the males don’t bite. Only the female is out for blood, but when she first takes flight, she’s actually a vegetarian. It’s a little like hearing that sharks prefer salad. (The seeds of bloodlust are sown early, though; the larvae are carnivorous and cannibalistic, and if there’s nothing else handy, like an earthworm or some other type of larva, they’ll eat each other.)
“Before she’s laid her eggs, you can even let her take a walk on you,” Dr. Stoffolano insists. “When the males and females emerge from the pupa stage, they feed on carbohydrates, like nectar or honeydew, for energy, for flight. That’s their gasoline. But once the female lays her eggs, her whole behavior changes. She becomes extremely aggressive. In this second cycle she’s seeking a host–cow, deer, human. She needs to have a blood meal if she’s going to lay another batch of eggs.”