Life in the Time of Greenheads

(Reposted annually about this time of year by popular demand by Gavin Keenan)

Situated in the epicenter of The Great Marsh, Ipswich is ground zero for the annual invasion of Town’s Official Pest, Tabanus nigrovittatus, better known as the Greenhead Fly. In my opinion, which I am happy to share with you, the Latin name for this scourge lends it far more dignity than it deserves. I’ve lived here for decades with only a handful of resentments; Summer traffic, Summer tourists etc., etc., and these little green SOB’s certainly lead the list. And though Cape Cod may now boast man-eating sharks, we of European ancestry have dealt with these man-eating monsters since John Winthrop tied up at the wharf and established the original Ipswich River Provisions. And this past week, they seem particularly vicious and blood-thirsty.

Greehead fly
Tabanus nigrovittatus

Archeologists have shown that the Native Americans were far more Zen in dealing with these temporary pests that their European interlopers. Evidence from excavated sites authoritatively suggest that members of the Agawam Nation simply caked their bodies in Eagle Hill River mud and waited patiently for the full moon tide to carry away the pesky bugs. The ancients seemed to understand that what could not be changed, must be tolerated. This was not an attitude native to those that followed.

In Colonial times, our forefathers noted the viciousness of the little bastards, with no less a personage than the Reverend Cotton Mather, who, while on administrative leave from persecuting the witches in Salem, declared, “All Green headed insects hath be sent to Hell where they shall be roasted and toasted and their dust fed to the hogs.” Accordingly, the salt marsh was set ablaze by fanatical Puritans to rid the colony of the scourge. Choking in their heavy dark smocks as the burning grass seared their cowhide boots, the Puritans were far too doctrinaire to divine the practical reality that the insect’s environment was already hot as hell and this inferno only served to make the Greenheads mad. It also encouraged the survivors to hate the human race with burning intensity and bite with greater ferocity. Things have been getting worse ever since.

For several years of my misspent youth, I worked for the Essex County Mosquito and Greenhead Fly Control Project. Obviously, I didn’t do a very good job as they are still plenty of both around, but I did learn a thing or two. For one, Mosquito’s suck and Greenheads bite. The sneaky Mosquito punctures your skin and sucks a drop or two of blood and then repays the favor by injecting Malaria, Encephalitis, West Nile and other life-altering viruses and diseases that your blood stream could do without. The Greenhead, on the other hand, dive bombs at you, slashes your skin with switch-blade jaws, and then laps up the ounce or two of blood that gushes from the wound as you scream in agony and try to slap the little cretin away, only adding additional trauma to the wound as the fly escapes to buzz and swirl around your head. The second thing I learned was that Greenheads, contrary to popular belief, are non-discriminatory in their preferred target. They enjoy light-skinned people, dark-skinned people, young and old skinned people; they especially crave people with easily lacerated and bleeding skin.

With the blistering weather and burgeoning bug population, completing outdoor projects this time of year can be a challenge. The motivation arises from looking at those chores you have put off for months which now cry out for attention. You know, window sills, sashes and frames that cry out for a little love, and the trim along the south wall that needs to be scraped and painted. The day eventually comes when you are ready for the challenge. You make all needed preparations; smearing on industrial strength sun screen to prevent cancer, spraying expensive Skin-So-Soft on your body parts to ward off the Greenheads, but fail to realize that your skin is now slicker than a slip and slide in August.

Paint brush clenched in your teeth, a can of brilliant white trim paint gripped in your lubricated fingers, you gingerly ascend the extension ladder to the upper level. Carefully balancing the can in one hand as you dip the brush with the other, you fervently wish that you had a third hand to hang on with. Things go okay at first, smooth strokes glide along the trim board as your confidence builds. Then you hear that hated buzz as a dozen green-eyed monsters flick to and fro, bouncing off the wallboard, splashing into the paint can, stroking your eyebrows and probing your nostrils. You know that swatting them away is a futile effort, yet, in desperation you do it anyway, only to let the brush slip from your greasy fingers and leave a vertical streak of brilliant white along your cranberry colored clapboards.

Undaunted, you return to earth, wipe off the brush and stained clapboards, and now determined to finish the job, resume the perilous climb. Only this time, your slick fingers have made the ladder rungs slippery and dangerous. Half way to heaven, the inevitable happens and your cheap sneakers slide off the ladder, landing you squarely in the decorative bird bath below. In pain, you mutter thanks that you at least had the foresight to change the water earlier. If you only had your cell phone you could call 911. Which leads me to the following.

No refunds for greenheads at Crane Beach
Entrance to Crane Beach

When I was a member of the local constabulary, the desk officer would be inundated this time of year with calls from pesky out of towners inquiring if there were Greenheads at Crane Beach. As the front-line representatives of our community, we were encouraged to downplay the impact of the fly. If time allowed, the more sadistic of us (me) would outright deny their existence, especially if the caller was a condescending Yuppie from Cambridge, Brookline or Boston. The conversation would go something like this:

“Ipswich Police, what is your emergency?”

“Are those awful flies at the beach now?”

“What beach, sir?”

“Crane Beach, of course. Is there another one I’m not aware of?”

“Cranes Beach, yes sir. What was your question?”

“The flies, the ones with the green eyes that bite people. They were awful the last time I was there. Are they out now?”

“Where are you calling from, sir?”

“Cambridge, why should that matter?

“You must be referring to Tabanus nigrovittatus, commonly known as the Greenhead Fly.”

“I know what I’m referring to. As a public servant, you are required to give me the information I demand, aren’t you? Or are you too busy looking at a comic book.”

Placing my well-read copy of MAD Magazine down next to my coffee and doughnut, I sighed, “Indeed sir. And you will be happy to know that the Trustees of Reservations have developed a successful, Eco-friendly way of deterring the fly from the beach now. In a series of double-blind studies, the process, using a combination of classical music and eucalypti pheromones infused along the dunes, has reduced the presence of the fly to essentially nil with no environmental impact. The flies have now relocated to Salisbury Beach. We’re very excited about this and I would encourage you to visit the beach today and bring the entire family. And be sure to use public transportation”

Long silence followed by a skeptical, “Are you sure, officer?”

“That’s my latest information sir.”

We generally avoided any blow-back from these less than candid, oh let’s face it, outright lies we would tell people; they were usually too traumatized and weakened from blood loss to call and complain. But the above conversation did lead to one notable exception.

After being relieved from the desk later that day, I was assigned to patrol the area of town that includes Cranes Beach. (Or Crane Beach, if you’re one of those people.) Sometime around 3:00 P.M., I responded to a call for medical assistance at the beach parking lot. Initial details were sketchy, however the gist of the call indicated the Trustees of Reservations reported a number of beach-goers were under siege from Greenhead flies and entering shock from blood loss. Reluctantly, I pointed the cruiser in the direction of Argilla Road and activated the lights and siren. Traffic was heavy, and when I arrived at the main gate an hour later- just in time to begin overtime pay- I observed the skeletal remains of a Beach Ranger holding a sign indicating that Greenheads were in season and that no refunds would be made to any whiners who complained.

Entering the parking lot, I turned off the siren and turned on the windshield wipers to swat away the millions of Greenheads now swarming the cruiser. I observed hoards of people; parents with children, hard-bodied jocks, Bay Watch beauties, beer-bellied bozos and others all exfiltrating the sand to escape their tormentors and make it to their vehicles. They were moving at various rates of velocity; those with only minimal flesh wounds were screaming, “AAAHHHHHH!!!!” and still managaging to put up a good fight, those already overcome by blood loss simply shuffled along the sand like half-dead Zombies with bleached complexions, moaning, “UHHNNNHHHH,” as the Greenheads lapped the last drops of blood from their collapsing veins.

I noticed a brave man standing at the Beach Shuttle waiting area shielding his family with a WGBH beach towel made of select hemp fibers. Overcome by hemorrhaging wounds, he fell to the gravel. I donned a Kevlar helmet and goggles and exited the cruiser to provide what aid I could. This headgear was effective in keeping the flies at bay, but with my modest physique, rendered my appearance similar to Atom Ant. As I knelt by his side, I could see he didn’t have long.

I asked him if there was something I could do for him. I urged him to be brief as several flies were boring through my body armor.

His eyes widened as he muttered, “You son of a bitch, I recognize your voice. You’re the cop who told me this morning the flies were gone.”

I responded, “Oh no sir, that wasn’t me. Sergeant Slaughter was on duty this morning.”

Too weak to argue, he muttered, “Help my kids,” and then his lights went out.

Just then, one of his small children was picked up by a squadron of Greenheads and headed toward Choate Island. I deployed my canister of O.C. at the swarm and filled the sweltering parking lot with Red Hot Chili Pepper spray, which fried the bugs, gassed the crowd and eventually freed the kid. Unfortunately, he fell into a restricted Piping Plover breeding ground and rescue was delayed until the Trustees Board of Directors convened to consider human penetration into this environmental Area 51. Approving on a 5-4 vote, the Trustees allowed entry by rescue personnel sometime later, and ever-entrepreneurial, paired the rescue with a membership drive, netting seven new family memberships within 24 hours. Things have a tendency to work out for the best.

Discerning readers may question the veracity of some or all presented above. I have no quibble with that, we can all claim ownership to our own facts these days. But as O.J. Simpson once observed, “It’s my story and I’m sticking with it.”

-Gavin Keenan

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