pioneers called them buffalo gnats, but now most people call them mini-beasts from hell. No matter what the nomenclature, millions of blackflies are smacking their bloodsucking lips in anticipation of their favourite food: winter-fattened campers. And lucky us, the start of blackfly season coincides with the May holiday weekend and the beginning of summer camping.
Shaped like a humpbacked fruit fly, the blackfly spends its relatively short lifetime -- one to two weeks -- feeding, mating and laying eggs in fast-flowing, well-oxygenated streams. To produce eggs, the female needs to feed on blood but lacks the syringe-like mouth parts of the mosquito. With a shorter, stouter proboscis, she relies on razor-sharp mandibles to slit open the skin. Anticoagulant is spit into the wound, causing swollen, itchy welts.
But remember when you're scratching and squirming that nature has a reason for everything -- those annoying creatures are the most important pollinators of blueberries and food for dragonflies, frogs and baby birds. Blackfly season only lasts from late May to mid-June, but beware, that's when mosquitoes take over.
What can you do to fight back in a non-toxic way? Health food stores sell products like In the Bush, composed of lemon grass and lavender; Mosquito Repellent Gel, made up of essential oils of lavender and rosemary; and Ledum Away, the main ingredient being citronella. Mountain Equipment Co-op sells a natural citronella repellent called Druide. Green Ban, made of tea tree oil, eucalyptus and oil of bergamot, is available at Algonquin Outfitters. And Victor Poison-Free spray -- garlic, water, potassium sorbate -- is available at www.victorpest.com.
Last summer we tested my sister's homemade repellent in Killarney Provincial Park. Consisting of comfrey oil, castor oil, grape seed oil, essential oils of basil, rosemary, lavender, eucalyptus and cedar, it won raves from our friends for its ability to keep away insects, soothe bites and relieve muscle aches from canoeing.
THE EXPERTS"The best defence is a sense of humour. Know the bugs are going to be there and be prepared with a physical barrier. I don't go anywhere without my bug jacket. Green Ban is effective. Also, I eat a lot of garlic, and it works -- actually, nobody comes near me."
Guide, Algonquin Outfitters
"Choose a breezy campsite away from tall grasses. Avoid being out at dusk and dawn, when blackflies are most active. I use grapefruit-scented soap. Eating grapefruit and oranges helps, too, as does avoiding scented products. Always wear light-coloured clothing -- dark clothes attract blackflies."
Algonquin Park ranger
"To repel bugs, mix 15 drops each of citronella, eucalyptus and pennyroyal essential oils in one ounce of almond or olive oil. Apply every two hours. Use water for a less oily mix, but apply more often. To soothe itchy welts, squeeze yellow dock leaf juice over bites. Plantain leaf juice, sliced onion and raw grated potato work, too. For an ointment, use calendula, comfrey and St. John's wort oil in beeswax. Fresh mashed chickweed applied directly on a blackfly bite is amazing. Around the patio, burn a small pot of garden sage, white sage, southernwood, rosemary, thuja cedar and/or tansy. A few cedar boughs over a campfire not only repels insects but smells delightful."
Heather Bakazias RN and herbalist
"Rub garlic and brewer's yeast on your skin to repel bugs. Take B vitamins and garlic internally, starting two weeks before exposure, to make your blood less appealing, and avoid eating bananas. A paste of baking soda and water on the bite helps to relieve itching and swelling. Papain, available in health food stores in capsules, is a good anti-inflammatory."
Pamela Frank Naturopath