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In search of black flies

Control program rids Lake Placid of pests

May 16, 2008
HEATHER SACKETT, News Staff Writer
LAKE PLACID — A team of expertly trained killers are roaming the woods and fields around Lake Placid, making sure you and your family won’t get eaten this summer — by the black fly.

Infamous throughout the Adirondacks, the black fly is the notorious pest that everyone loves to hate. Since its inception 15 years ago the North Elba Black Fly Control Program has been using Bti (Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis) as its weapon against the annoying critters.

From April 1 through mid-July, black fly technicians cover a 90-square-mile area centered around the village of Lake Placid from MacKenzie Pond in the west to Mount Van Hoevenberg in the east, and from the end of Averyville Road in the south to Whiteface Landing in the north. That includes about 250 miles of waterways.

The town of North Elba is one of the most extensive of the roughly 30 Adirondack townships that have a black fly control program.

Black flies are considered more of a nuisance that other biting insects because they are out during the day and their bites are painful, as opposed to things like mosquitos, which can be avoided by staying away from wooded areas and bodies of water during dusk and dawn when they are most active.

Lake Placid Mayor Jamie Rogers remembers what springtime was like before the Bti program.

“There’s been a massive improvement,” he said. “I can remember just going out to play baseball in the springtime and they would be literally at times so thick you would breathe some of them in.”

Rogers added that the black flies negatively affected the spring tourism economy as well.

“People take for granted that black flies don’t exist in the village anymore.”

Rogers, who is also a fisherman, said he doubts that reducing the black fly population has a negative impact on the trout population because of the abundance of other insects as a food source.

“The program speaks for itself,” said North Elba Black Fly Control Program Director John Reilly. “People are out in May playing golf and tennis in T-shirts. Without the program you wouldn’t be able to do that.”

Bti targets just the black fly larvae (and sometimes another insect larvae that hatches to become no-see-ums), is 99 percent effective at killing them, and no traces of the pesticide can be found 24 hours after a stream has been treated.

Black fly larvae attach themselves to rocks, sticks or aquatic plants and feed on the nutrients in the moving water. Bti only kills black flies that are in this larvae stage, which is what the technicians look for before adding the pesticide to a stream. Because of the very alkaline pH in the stomach of black fly larvae, eating Bti will kill it, usually within a day.

Five field technicians plus Reilly venture out into the woods and methodically monitor streams for black fly larvae. The width, depth, velocity and temperature of streams must be calculated so technicians know how much of the pesticide to use in each place.

Reilly explained that black flies thrive in cold, moving water so technicians try to hit every tiny tributary, even those that don’t appear on the most detailed maps available. To be as thorough as possible, sometimes the technicians look for a depression in a topographical map and go see if there is a remote, uncharted stream there that needs to be treated.

“The stuff works,” Reilly said. “The hard part is getting the humans up into the places.”

Technicians begin their day in the office on the third floor of the North Elba Town Hall where they plan which streams they will hit, check to make sure private property owners have granted them permission to access streams, and mark down when they expect to return from the field. Their days are spent largely in the wilderness, finding larvae in streams, killing them, then going back the next day to see how many of the bugs the treatment wiped out.

Technicians are outfitted with a signature red ball cap, a pack, map and compass, first aid kit, a town-issued cell phone, snowshoes in early spring, waders, a log book and the pesticide. A lot of their time is spent off the beaten path, bushwhacking. After a day in the field, technicians return to the town hall and mark off the area they treated on a wall map.

This has been a banner year for the black fly, with some larvae surviving through the winter, something Reilly said he has never seen before. Most areas will receive at least two treatments per season; those areas closest to town may receive up to ten.

According to Reilly, before the Bti program, planes carrying the chemicals methoxachlor and diabrom mixed with kerosene would spray the ground, killing most flying insects. It wasn’t that effective on black flies, though it did kill bumble bees, and the negative health effects on humans and other animals are obvious.

Reilly has been director of the program for the past four years, but has been working as a technician since the beginning of the program. His favorite part of the job is the time he gets to spend outdoors.

“Just getting out in the woods and going to places off the trail you normally wouldn’t get to,” he said.

He said he has also had rare opportunities to experience wildlife while in the field, like seeing signs of moose and the pine marten he recently spotted.

“Those are the fringe benefits,” he said. “Plus all the fresh air you can breathe.”

Article Photos

Director of the North Elba Black Fly Control Program John Reilly demonstrates how technicians measure the width of a stream, in this case the Chubb River, to calculate how much Bti to use.



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