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Biting nuisance

Tue., June 19, 2012, midnight

Region’s recent weather has made life ideal for black flies, which in turn are wreaking havoc on people, pets

Spokane’s current scourge, a swollen army of tiny biting insects wielding blades on their mouth parts, spares few. Not preschoolers. Not Chihuahuas.

The black flies seem to be especially drawn to West Central resident Xuxa Hernandez, 3, who “gets eaten alive every time she goes outside,” said her mother, Whitney Jacques. “It doesn’t matter if it’s just five minutes or an hour, she gets bites all over her head.”

And to Milo, 5, of Spokane Valley, who has very little fur, said his owner, Annie Gannon. Gannon found her dog’s condition confusing – his bites resembled chickenpox – until she googled “black-winged blood-sucking insects” after finally catching one of the insects.

Near June’s start, the Spokane Regional Health District had received an uptick of calls from people who’d suffered itchy, painful and swollen insect bites. By last week, the problem was much worse, said Kim Papich, health district spokeswoman.

“We were having a hard time keeping up with the calls,” Papich said.

While the tiny assailants haven’t been positively identified, the district is nearly certain they’re black flies, Papich said. The bites look and feel like black fly bites, and the region’s recent weather has been ideal for the insects. Commonly called buffalo gnats, the insects – roughly one-eighth of an inch long – have been positively identified in nearby Grant and Whitman counties.

Not sure whether the insects carry disease, parents are concerned about how to treat the bites on kids who are getting attacked, Papich said. At least one mother took her much-bitten child to the emergency room.

The good news: Here in the United States, black flies aren’t disease carriers. In 30 African nations and some spots in Mexico and Central and South America, they carry the parasite that causes onchocerciasis, or river blindness.

Painful bites

But while black flies don’t transmit disease in the U.S., their bites can be painful and itchy – and bloody.

Jacques said she first noticed blood in the part of her daughter’s hair. She looked closer and saw bites all over the preschooler’s head.

“They’re so small, it’s amazing they can get that much blood out of somebody,” Jacques said. “It’s not like a mosquito, where you can see them or hear them and slap them. They just get in and out.”

That’s what they’re built for.

While mosquitoes stick a needlelike structure into your skin and then suck your blood, black flies cut a hole through your skin.

“They have almost, like, little blades on the end of their mouth parts,” said Richard Zack, an entomologist at Washington State University in Pullman. You bleed, and the black flies feed on the blood.

The insects usually attack around the eyes, ears and scalp, but sometimes they bite exposed arms and legs. They crawl into sleeves, under neckbands and around the tops of boots. The pain and swelling are the body’s response to black flies’ saliva, which they inject while they feed, according to the health district.

Over-the-counter itch-relief creams can help relieve symptoms and heal the bite wounds, which should be cleaned. Oral antihistamines may help, too, according to the district.

“What you’re worried about with these is doing a lot of scratching and a possible infection,” Zack said.

Accommodating habitat

Black fly larvae grow in cold, highly oxygenated water that’s fast-moving – meaning the Inland Northwest is full of black fly nurseries, said Edward Bechinski, an entomologist at the University of Idaho in Moscow.

“Black flies are a badge of honor,” he said. “They say something about the quality of our rivers and streams. They don’t do well in polluted waters.”

It’s not that the insects are new to the area. It’s that there are so many more of them, thanks to the region’s cool, cloudy and rainy weather interspersed with a couple of hot, humid days. While the larvae live in the water, the adults – the females are the biters – thrive in that kind of weather.

The region experienced very similar weather last spring, noted Papich, when black flies first became a significant problem for residents.

The bugs moved from feeding on mostly cattle, horses and other livestock to feeding on people and pets, too.

Neither Spokane nor Spokane Valley sprays chemicals or takes other measures to combat the bugs.

“But really there are no controls for black flies that will be hugely effective,” Papich wrote in an email. “The best measure is prevention” – people protecting themselves from the insects.Bechinski said nature will take care of the bugs eventually.

“If it is the black fly, the problem is going to magically cure itself by, I’d say, Fourth of July weekend,” he said. “The adults don’t do well in hot, dry conditions.”

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