June 23, 2008


Eight years after purchasing our retirement home, and five years after moving in full time, I finally am doing some very belated “landscaping” work.

Lest you consider us slothful, we had done some outside work in previous years—two years ago my husband, Monte, and son, Nolan, removed big rocks in our woods, then  made a path between my daughter’s house and our house, enabling us all to scoot back and forth easily—and making true the words, “and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go.” Last year we enlarged the path, which now circles around half the perimeter of our acre and a half lot, and meets with the first path. Also, my husband wheel-barrowed numerous wood chips to cover it.

I began this year by starting to trim a wild rose bush, which proved to be so overgrown that we ended up removing it totally (or so we thought, but new shoots are now reaching skyward). It cleared out a corner of our property, so that after trimming a few pine boughs we had an opening for a shortcut to the neighbor’s house.

As I continued around the property, hand-digging dandelions for the third year, I came to a pine tree planted by the former owner. Her husband was from Massachusetts, and the pine was transplanted from some site in that state. Since I’m a New Englander, this touch pleases me.

As I worked around this pine tree I became bugged. I mean this literally. Small black bugs swarmed about me, in my eyes, nose, mouth. Needless to say, I didn’t work long in that area. However, the experience reminded me of a series of conversations I had with a chat room member, Topforester, during early 2003, when Monte and I were planning a major vacation in New England following his July retirement. The Topforester was a forest ranger, I believe, from the Calais, Maine, area. He warned me about traveling to Maine in late spring, early summer, when the black bugs were prolific. He also gave me advice on a helpful product to combat the bug with, and where to get it, but I cannot find that reference now. (Topforester, if you happen by chance to be reading this, let me know in the comment box what you directed me to get!)

The May/June 2008 issue of Yankee Magazine (page 46), written by Francie Von Mertens, states the following:

New Englanders take a perverse pride in their blackflies—claiming them as their state “bird,” naming softball teams after them—but behind the bravado is a certain dread. As a birder, I note that blackflies return to our backyard almost to the day that barn swallows return to our barn. One is a favorite species; the other is endured with a sense that you can’t have one without the other.

Wildlife species—whether mammal, bird, or insect—hatch their young when their favored foods are most abundant. One of the earliest nesting birds, the great horned owl, for example, hatches its young when rapidly multiplying rabbits and mice are out and about. A few months later, when insects emerge, migrating birds return to begin their breeding season. Then, as our summer bounty ripens, fruit-eating cedar waxwings hatch their young.

When we swat at blackflies or mosquitoes, or steer clear of wasps under house eaves, it’s easy to forget that human comfort isn’t the point. We’re just one part of a complex, interdependent system. Perhaps those blackflies pollinate the blueberry blossoms that produce the berries that attract elegant cedar waxwings to your backyard…a very pleasing silver lining.

I’ve read numerous 1790s journals and letters pertaining to New England, especially the area known as the Penobscot Purchase (or Penobscot Millions)—Hancock and Washington counties, Maine. OK, perhaps this is “drab” reading, but I’m doing it for background research for my historical romance novel, and historical journal article. 

In the process, I’ve discovered interesting references to the black bugs and other insects. Certainly, the writers didn’t agree with Von Mertens. I suspect they could have done away with the entire population of these obnoxious insects. Below are some samples.

Annually, between the years 1632 and 1673, the (Jesuit) superiors (in Maine) made up a narrative, or “Relation,” which they forwarded to the Provincial of the order in France…consider that the “Relations” were written for the most part in Indian camps subject to every conceivable distraction. Myriads of mosquitoes tormented the writer…

Settlers periodically lost entire harvests to invasions of grasshoppers and “army worms,” so named because they marched in a direct line like the ranks of a voracious army. In November 1779 Lincoln County’s magistrates lamented:

After having struggled through the miseries of a hard and pinching winter, the people’s countenances pale, and their bodies become feeble, through want and hunger; they were in the spring of the year, from the first appearance of things, in great hopes of a fruitfull summer, but their early hopes were soon cut off, by amazing swarms of grasshoppers, and other insects which in many parts of this county almost covered the face of the ground, and distroyd a great part of the grain and grass and almost all vegetables that grew out of the earth.

Another devastating infestation occurred in 1793, when, in the words of one settler, the grasshoppers “destroyed almost every green thing.” The infestations were not more serious on the frontier than elsewhere in rural America, but the settlers felt them more severely because they rarely possessed any surplus of grain to draw upon in adversity. 

Often farm work in the settlers’ forest-surrounded clearings became unbearable. William Allen Jr. wrote:

We had hard times during the winter, 1792-1793, but suffered more intensely the next summer, under our severe tasks and privations, and from the torment of black flies and mosquitoes. Our camp was near a large swamp that swarmed with these pests, which tormented us day and night. We could scarcely see, our eyes were so swollen. Sometimes the boys had their necks bitten till there were raw sores with flies imbedded in them.

In search of some surcease from the biting insects, settlers maintained day and night “smokes,” straw and brush fires, at their doors, which Allen Jr. stated:

…filled their cabins with a dense, almost choking smoke that, even in the hottest weather, was preferable to their tiny but innumerable foes.

Early in the summer of 1793, Park Holland was surveying the Penobscot region. He wrote, from Sandy Point, Maine, enroute to the site:

We passed one night only in the house of Colonel Shute. The weather being so extremely warm, the fleas were so troublesome that we were obliged to camp on the shore. We found out before our return, that we had evils to contend with, of some greater magnitude than the bite of a flea….

I didn’t continue on to read what the additional evils were, but obviously the fleas were of some evil.

In July 1795, William Bingham, a land proprietor, was informed by his land agent, David Cobb, that smaller predators—black flies and mosquitoes—fed on the settlers’ blood and often drove them from their work in the spring and early summer. Cobb wrote:

The surveyor and those who came to view the country…have as frequently returned almost blind by the bites of flies and musketoes. You have no conception of the hosts of these devils that infest the thick forrest at this season.”

The modern world has studied “better” bug repellants, according to a May 27, 2008 AP article headline published in the Latrobe (PA) Bulletin. The article states:

Researchers have identified seven possibilities for the next generation of mosquito repellant, some of which may work several times longer than the current standard-bearer, DEET. The next step: safety testing to make sure they’re not harmful.

While the new repellants aren’t likely to be available commercially for a few years, early tests on cloth were promising with some chemical repelling mosquitoes for as long as 73 days and many working for 40 to 50 days, compared to an average of 17.5 days with DEET, according to a study in Tuesday’s edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences…Several of the new chemicals “were just phenomenal,” said Ulrich R. Bernier, a research chemist at the Agriculture department’s mosquito and fly research unit in Gainesville, Fla. “I was so surprised…” makes repellants work, and then to use that information in finding more effective ways to chase away disease-carrying insects, Bernier explained in a phone conversation.

“We thought, can we do a better job of designing repellants?” Bernier said.

(The researchers funded by the Defense Department, focused on) a type of chemical known as N-acylpiperidines, (narrowing) the study down to 34 molecules—23 that had never been tested before and 11 that had—Bernier explained.

From those, the 10 most effective were narrowed down to seven, with elimination based on concerns about toxicity and high cost to produce.

The tests were done on cloth treated with the chemicals and then placed on the arms of volunteers.

According to Bernier, safety tests will be done the seven chemicals this summer in order to determine if they are safe to use directly on the skin.

While the military is paying for the research, any success is expected to benefit the general public too. The current standard for repellants, DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide) was also originally developed for military use in 1946 and was registered for use on civilians in 1957.

DEET may have a good safety record, but some people dislike its odor and others question its safety for some individuals, especially children and pregnant women. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, DEET has been implicated in seizures among children, although there is insufficient information to confirm it as the cause of these incidents.

Bernier, a co-author of the study, said he regularly receives new repellants from people and he ends up writing them back to say they don’t work.

One such measure was observed by a person I’ll call Morton, who was at a deck party where the bugs were feasting on everyone. When a man sprayed the lawn and deck floor with Listerine, the little demons disappeared.

The next year Morton filled a 4-ounce spray bottle and used it around his seat whenever I saw mosquitoes. Voila! It worked as well.

It worked at a picnic where Morton sprayed the area around the food table, the children’s swing area, and the standing water nearby. During the summer, Morton didn’t leave home without his spray bottle full of Listerine.

Morton’s experience was confirmed by another Internet reader, who stated that the Listerine killed the insects instantly, and was financially feasible. This reader stated that the procedure lasted a couple of days, and warned not to spray directly on a wood surface, but to spray around that wood.

I must experiment with this the next time I am working around those pine trees from Maine. The result will either prove that something finally works, or that Morton and the reader own stock in the company that produces Listerine.

Nonetheless, it is important to avoid being bitten by insects such as mosquitoes, ticks and black flies, which can spread diseases such as encephalitis, Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, malaria, and dengue Fever.

As for the statement in an E-mail I received, “Now these are Good Mosquitos!!!,” do not believe it—unless you are a critter who survives by a diet of insects!

NOTE: Some references are from Sprague’s Journal of Maine History, Vol. II; Liberty Men and Great Proprietors by Alan Taylor and Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Volume 37.

Thank you for visiting my writing site. I welcome you to make comments. Please visit the Beanery Online Literary Magazine at

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1 Comment »

  1. Within the first month of its posting, it became the second most popular post (first approaching THE most popular post) on the Beanery Online Literary magazine, yet it was written by a nine year old. Click on list at end of this post to read OF FIREFLIES AND LIGHTNING BUGS

    Comment by carolyncholland — July 9, 2008 @ 1:19 pm | Reply

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