, Salem, MA

June 4, 2013

Abandoning beachgoers to 'Jaws with wings'

What others say
Newburyport Daily

---- — As anyone who has visited Plum Island at the height of greenhead season in mid- to late July knows all too well: Greenheads bite.

The greenhead is a largish horsefly with iridescent green eyes, and when it bites, you know it. The greenhead feeds by using its sharp, serrated jaws to rip away a patch of skin to draw your blood. The bite leaves a nasty, itchy welt.

And they sometimes attack in swarms.

Greenheads aren’t unique to Plum Island, of course. You’ll find them at virtually any Northeast beach, including Salisbury and Hampton and sandy shores as far north as Maine and as far south as Cape Cod and New Jersey.

But where else are they written into the national anthem?

“I am a Plum Islander; Plum Island is my home/When greenhead flies fill the skies, no one walks alone,” goes one verse of the “Plum Island National Anthem.”

The humorous ditty was written 40 years ago or so, when Plum Islanders joked (or half-joked) about seceding from the mainland.

At the time, greenheads were far more numerous than today. They’re still a painful nuisance. On bad greenhead days, the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge posts warning signs at the entrance gate. Some visitors turn right around.

But the population of the biting flies has been greatly reduced by the invention — not long after the anthem was written — of the greenhead fly trap.

The trap is a large black wooden box atop four legs. Placed in the salt marshes where the flies breed, the traps take advantage of a greenhead weakness.

The flies are genetically wired to attack the dark underbelly of four-legged creatures, like cattle and horses, where they are harder for their prey to defend against. It’s why, if you’re sitting on the beach, they’ll go straight for the back of your legs.

The flies are attracted to the black boxes in the marsh, fly up inside and can’t get out. Each trap kills thousands and thousands of greenheads each year.

But soon the flies may again “fill the skies” of Plum Island.

The town of Newbury, which includes most of the occupied part of the barrier island, has opted for unilateral disarmament in the war against the pest.

It says it can no longer afford to pay for the traps.

“We’re looking at every penny, and it was something we decided to forgo,” Selectmen Chairman Joe Story told reporter Mac Cerullo.

It’s hard to believe that in a multimillion budget, paid for in large part by Plum Island property owners and visitors, the town couldn’t find the $2,000 or $3,000 needed to put out traps to protect them from “Jaws with Wings,” as some call the greenhead.

There is still hope that a massive infestation of the flies can be averted.

Greg Pugh, the owner of the Beachcoma restaurant on the island, plans a fundraiser Saturday, June 8, to raise enough money to put out some traps.

“The plan is to have a lobster bake, have some T-shirts made and have people over to raise money for the boxes,” Pugh said.

Without the traps, he said, a surging greenhead population could drive away beachgoers and hurt island businesses like his, as well as make life miserable for Islanders.

Pugh has more sense and concern for the public than selectmen, and we wish him well. But it shouldn’t be necessary to be rattling a tin cup to pay for a service the town has provided for years and the public wants and pays taxes for.

Selectmen’s decision to abandon them to the flies is exactly the kind of neglect and poor return on their tax investment that drives Plum Islanders to grumble about secession.

But who knows? Maybe the greenheads can help the cause if they return in the vast swarms of yore.

As another verse in the “Plum Island National Anthem” has it:

“Someday Plum Island we shall make an independent nation/Protected by our greenhead flies, flying in formation.”