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

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!