We here in New England consider ourselves to be a hardy bunch, known for withstanding ice, freezing cold and snowstorms that are measured in feet rather than inches. Once shorts weather comes around, however, we get weak-kneed at the prospect of dealing with Tabanus nigrovittatus, better known as the greenhead. If we’re being honest, they rule the beaches in late July and early August.
The insects seem to be designed, like something out of an “Alien” film, to make each bite more painful than the last. Their mouths have two sharp mandibles that punch through your skin into your flesh, then flex outward, ripping into your veins and capillaries. Next, they douse the wound with a pain-inducing, anticoagulant saliva before sucking up your blood with a syringe-like appendage. All this happens in an instant, and they’re moving on to their next victim before you have a chance to react.
The flies seem to be immune to all attempts to kill them or shoo them away. The sprays municipalities use to control the mosquito population have little to no effect. And beachgoers have tried all measure of concoctions — some sounding like odd summer drinks — in a desperate attempt to find a repellent that works: DEET, Skin So Soft, Skin So Soft mixed with DEET, garlic supplements, Listerine with water, vodka and citronella and yes, DEET and dry gin. If you find one that actually works, let us know.
If there is any solace to be had, it is in the realization that greenheads are in many ways a sign of a healthy coastal ecosystem — an angry, biting canary in the coalmine, if you will. In Louisiana, for example, researchers have gauged the region’s recovery from the BP oil spill disaster by tracking the greenhead’s return to the area. In Massachusetts, they live in the same salt marshes humans have spent the last few decades protecting and restoring, feeding on all manner of animals there. The healthier the marsh, the greater diversity of wildlife; the greater diversity of wildlife, the greater numbers of greenheads.
And healthy marshes are a good thing. They protect coastal property by absorbing excess water, reducing flooding. They yield some of the sweetest-tasting clams this side of Woodman’s. And the clean coastal waters are home to the food fish that lures striped bass here every summer and fall. No marshes, no greenheads. But probably no fried clams, either.
Is this a defense of the greenhead? Goodness, no. We’re afraid of those suckers too. But it is worth recognizing their appearance every July is a also harbinger of some of the better experiences of summer.
Now, pass the DEET and gin.