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Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me! (‘cause I’m studying wetlands!)

2009 May 22

Go to EPA's Science Month pageAbout the author: Dale Haroski is the Science Advisor to the Office of Public Affairs. Even with years of field work and a doctorate in Ecology and Evolution, she has endangered her fiancé’s life several times after abandoning the driver’s seat (while moving) to flee from assorted small spiders and insects.

Ask any wetlands ecologist what life is like in the field and, if they’re honest, you be regaled with tales of long days and longer nights, weather, mud, being stuck in the mud, boats breaking down, people breaking down and bugs – lots and lots of bugs.

All of my graduate research took place in east coast estuaries where seemingly serene swaying fields of salt grass hide one of the most ferocious and fearsome predators known to ecologists and beachgoers alike: the greenhead fly. I know what you’re thinking, “It’s a fly! Sure they’re annoying but aren’t we being a little dramatic?” If you’re thinking this then you’ve clearly never experienced Tabanus nigrovittatus. With razor sharp mouth parts and giant green eyes capable of tracking a target with military precision, the greenhead is impressive, intimidating and seemingly indestructible. Smack, swat, slam or smash it and the greenhead pauses (probably chuckles evilly to itself) and swoops in for the next round of attack. Oh and I haven’t even begun to discuss the painful bites nor the resulting huge welts.

At this point you’re probably thinking, “Ok, they sound pretty nasty but one or two flies isn’t the end of the world.” Ah, but we’re not talking about one or two flies! Scientists at Rutgers University have collected over 1000 greenhead flies PER HOUR all seeking a “blood meal.” (shudder) If that number doesn’t give you nightmares then imagine my panic when greenheads even attempted to fly down my snorkel in their quest for blood! This is the stuff of horror movies folks yet wetlands scientists persist, nay even thrive, in such an environment. Perhaps the greenhead has met its match?

I’ve done field work all over this country and have encountered numerous creepy crawlies. Heck, I once even had an alligator try to bite a fish trap out of my hand yet greenhead flies stand out. And yet, when reflecting on my many wetland adventures, do I mostly remember the beauty and complexity of the estuary right down to that unique marshy smell (malodorous to some and perfume to others)? Absolutely. Did I tolerate greenheads because my fascination with wetlands overrode my seemingly genetically programmed response to flail my arms around while screaming and swatting? Absolutely. Would I do it all again? Absolutely!

Wetland field stories…if you’ve got ‘em, I’d love to hear ‘em!

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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8 Responses leave one →
  1. Lina-EPA permalink*
    May 22, 2009

    That’s quite a vivid account of your wetlands exploration. Definitely requires some special skills and a love of science. It shows. Kudos.

  2. Jackenson Durand permalink
    May 22, 2009

    Absolutely, anything can never stop willingness to achieve goal, learning what you like.

  3. Linda permalink
    May 26, 2009

    You know you’re destined to be an Environmental Biologist when, during college field trips into the wetlands someone shouts “snake” and you are part of the group running *toward*, rather than *away*.

  4. Jackie permalink
    May 27, 2009

    You’re a better person than I! I can’t imagine so many attacking and biting at once! I think I agree most with the statement of the “…genetically programmed response to flail my arms around while screaming and swatting”. I am convinced that it is a reaction that carries through Haroski blood line, but is a recessive trait for Aunt Pam, because place most of us in a room with a big flying insect and it’s pandemonium!
    However, I guess I understand because despite the Kenyan tse tse flies, bed bugs, and those insects I called “flying worms” because I didn’t remember their name (yet they still haunt my dreams of flying into my mosquito net at night) the work and experience are still worth it.

  5. Dr. Dale permalink
    May 27, 2009

    And yet strangely you’ve chosen a career in social work and not field biology…hmmm…perhaps those times I dragged you to the field station and the lab as a small child were more damaging than I thought…

  6. Aunt Pam permalink
    May 27, 2009

    Living in Florham Park for a few years introduced me to an insect which I feel is worse than all others-the dreaded “hoppy bug”-scientifically known as a “camel cricket”. It can elude giant books being dropped on top of it, and does more than just “hop”. It somehow flies into the air-right at you, no matter where you are. After entering an old shed on the property to get a lawn mower, I had instead entered a horror movie while awake. A scurrying sound above led me to look up, with great misgivings, and billions of camel crickets looked back at me, laughed, and began to fall down on my head. Flailing and screaming does not come close to my reaction as I ran. No, Jackie, not recessive, just a gene more controlled at times, but certainly evident when coaxed out by the right insect. By the way, have the luck to kill the camel cricket, and get to see the gooey liquid ooze out of it, and a smell reach your nostrils that almost knocks you out. Lovely!

  7. Tony permalink
    July 28, 2011

    Yes flying worms can be unpleasant little yellow things that seem to just hang in the air, the ones I encountered were about one cm, however I am fairly sure that they are harmless.

  8. Richard permalink
    February 11, 2015

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