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Original Issue

Visit from a small monster

Ornery as a sci-fi creature, a fly is biting its way through Maine

They get in your nose and your mouth. You can't eat in the backyard. There's no spray that's effective against them. It's unreal, just unbelievable. For the last two years my wife and I laid out our garden in the backyard and haven't been able to work in it because of them. The garden just went to weeds." As Carroll B. Worcester of Lincoln, Maine details his troubles, you can just imagine the camera pulling back on his weed-choked garden and hear in the background a Moog synthesizer emitting its impending-doom number.

Cut. Cut! We've seen it all before. Nature run amok, harmless creatures turned into monsters through man's meddling with the balance of nature. What is it this time, giant bugs stomping over Tokyo rooftops? Once-mild-mannered runner beans twisting unbreakable tendrils around the hand that tends them? Colossal army ants bivouacking in Central Park? No, this time it's real, and Worcester's story doesn't end at 2 a.m. with the playing of the national anthem and the TV screen going flickering gray.

Worcester is the town manager of Lincoln, about 60 miles northeast of Bangor and very close to the big Maine woods. And what's bugging him is a stunted cousin of the notorious Maine blackfly that is making life miserable for natives and, worse, for tourists.

The new fly, as it is called, ìs at least temporarily categorized as Simulium nyssa and is suspected by some scientists to have immigrated to Maine from Alabama. Other scientists believe it has been in Maine all along. The problem ar ises from the fact that Simulium nyssa is subdued and peaceful in hot, humid Alabama, but in Maine's cool climate it has turned vicious and become a pinhead-size version of those highly publicized hybrid Brazilian bees that are expected to appear in the Southwest U.S. in the next few years.

"I'm not sure that this is the Alabama breed even though they look alike and have the same name," says Dr. Ivan N. McDaniel, associate professor of entomology at the University of Maine, who has been studying the new fly since 1964. McDaniel has found that the new fly is identical with Simulium nyssa physically, but he is reluctant to make a positive identification because "they just act differently." About as differently as Godzilla and a newt.

Being overly aggressive isn't the only bad thing about the new fly. The old-fashioned blackfly has long plagued Maine fishermen, but only in May and June. Not so with the new fly. McDaniel has seen it thrive right into November. Apparently it is capable of producing three or four generations a year (all of them biting), whereas the ordinary blackfly is limited to one that bites. Two or three non-biting generations follow. "You've got to have swift-running, cool, pure water—usually from the mountains—to sustain the blackflies that attack man," McDaniel says. "That's why the Adirondacks and the mountains of Maine are good for them."

At present the new fly is contained in a wedge-shaped chunk of Maine running in a broadening northwesterly arc from Jonesport on the coast through Orono just north of Bangor and up to Moose-head Lake. On the less densely populated northern side the fly is found up to the Maine-New Brunswick border. Moreover, every year the new fly claims more territory. "A few years ago we checked the Jackman area [on the Maine-Quebec border] and found none," McDaniel says. "Now there are plenty in that town."

The story is the same along the coast. "We went to the July Fourth celebration in Jonesport last year and there were very few flies," Carroll Worcester says. "This year we went back down again in late spring and there were a lot."

Salmon fishermen may have played a bit part in the new fly's proliferation. Matthew Scott, an aquatic biologist for Maine's Department of Environmental Protection, points out that the new fly's arrival coincided with the installation of antipollution equipment in the paper mills along the Penobscot River, which runs through the heart of the new fly belt. Antipollution measures have been effective to the extent that Atlantic salmon have returned to the once-famed Bangor Salmon Pool on the Penobscot after an absence of almost two decades. They are back in such numbers that the Penobscot Salmon Club has begun renovating its clubhouse, which has stood idle for many years. "We've spent millions to clean up the Penobscot and bring back the Atlantics," Scott says. "I don't think it's much of a trade to let all that go by the board just because people are being bitten more by flies."

So far, no one in Maine has gone to the extreme of suggesting that the rivers be repolluted to slow down the flies, but tourism is the state's second-ranking industry, accounting for $500 million annually, and the new fly's arrival on top of a nationwide recession threatens to become more than a pain in the neck—or arms, or any other exposed part of the body where the mean-tempered midgets decide to take a nip. In Lincoln, a number of schoolboys at football practice were bitten so severely that they had to be taken to the hospital for treatment.

For the time being, the state is proceeding with extreme caution. Earlier this year Worcester circulated a petition around Lincoln asking that steps be taken to curb the new fly. In 10 days 600 names were collected in the community of 5,000 located on the banks of the Penobscot. "I'd have no trouble getting another 600," Worcester says. "In any community where these things have come in, I'm sure almost everyone would sign a petition like this."

In May, municipal officers from many towns in the new fly belt established a Blackfly Control Committee. State officials were invited to a meeting, an eventful one as it turned out. "We heard that some of the state people had been saying we didn't really have a problem," Worcester says. "Well, our meeting migrated from the Lincoln town office to Enfield, just south of us on the Penobscot, where we met outdoors. Now I have seen the new flies in stronger force, but there were enough of them to prove the point that day. Those state people had to bat them off. Most of them finally pushed their pants legs right down into their stockings to keep those flies from biting their legs. By the time it was over, they were willing to admit that we certainly have a problem.

"But those state people still seem more concerned about the salmon in the Penobscot. People have a right to live, too. Up here if you don't snowmobile in the winter, all you have for enjoyment is the summer, when you can picnic, garden and go to the beaches. Now, we can't even do that. The State Department of Environmental Protection has been strong against all kinds of air pollution. Isn't that what these new flies are?"

There's a good reason for the state's caution in moving against the new flies. You could call it the methoxychlor vs. Abate debate, and it's part of an international squabble regarding insecticides. Methoxychlor was invented by Du Pont, although the patent has now run out; it is a chlorinated hydrocarbon, of the same family as DDT but not as long-lived. Abate, made by American Cyan-amid, is an organophosphate, slightly more precise in its choice of victims and not nearly as long-lived as methoxychlor. Donald F. Mairs, who supervises Maine's Board of Pesticides Control, notes that "the World Health Organization has shifted from methoxychlor to Abate in the Volta River Basin of western Africa, where the blackfly spreads river blindness.

"Abate, mixed in a dry micropulverized formula, may be the safest larvicide. When the granules are spread on rivers and streams, they sink and bump along the bottom to be eaten by filter-feeding larvae, like those of the blackfly. A few other filter feeders, including some caddis larvae, would probably also be hit. But the bulk of insect life would survive. People at the Canadian Freshwater Institute in Winnipeg have warned me about methoxychlor. But there is a split up there, with the department of agriculture backing methoxychlor on the grounds that it is a little cheaper and has been very effective."

Howard Dean, an associate aquatic biologist for New York's Department of Environmental Conservation, has reservations about methoxychlor. After using it for a decade, New York scientists have found that it reduces many other larvae besides those of the blackfly, particularly larvae that fish feed on, or those which mature into insects that fish eat. DEC is studying the possibility that methoxychlor has adversely affected the growth and stamina of salmon and trout. For example, methoxychlor hits stone flies and mayflies, which hurt nothing and are fine fish food.

Dr. Ronald Wallace of Canada's department of environment, who has been studying both chemicals for years, advises Maine officials to wait a couple of years before using any pesticide. Dr. Wallace theorizes that when polluted areas are cleaned up, aggressive species tend to dominate temporarily. He believes that in time the natural growth of other competitive and predatory invertebrates will reduce or moderate the blackfly population explosion.

While Maine officials debated, two towns in the new fly belt—Orono and Old Town—applied to the pesticides board for permission to experiment with methoxychlor against the new flies in a 100-square-mile area. The man who drew up the application was McDaniel. "There's no question that Dr. McDaniel is one of the world's leading authorities on blackflies and mosquitoes," Scott says, "but I'd have to question how knowledgeable he is in the field of insecticides to control the flies."

Because of some errors and omissions in the application presented to Don Mairs' pesticides board, state officials were able to summarily reject it.

Subsequently, the town of Dover-Fox-croft submitted a similar application, also prepared by McDaniel but with two notable revisions. First, it called for the use of either Abate or methoxychlor and, second, the experimental area was reduced to approximately four square miles. The Dover-Foxcroft application was shelved.

"Ideally, I'd like to see one square mile for experimentation with Abate," Scott says, "with a separate control area of equal size. But I certainly do not want the Penobscot River used as the site of the experiment. There's too much to lose if things go wrong."

Says Don Mairs, "The matter is certainly contentious enough. It's a classic conflict between the environmentalists and those whose economic interests would be maintained, or enhanced, through control of the environment. I get calls from people in the tourist business complaining about the new flies. The town managers are representing those economic interests in their communities. But the pesticides board is a quasi-judicial body. As a result, the main thing I'm looking for is a well-designed experiment that we can approve."

The road to approval of any plan to control the new fly has had a new detour built into it. Recently the Attorney General of Maine ruled that not only would a permit from the pesticides board be required before any action could be taken, but an additional approval would have to come in the form of a waste-discharge permit granted by the Board of Environmental Protection.

Along with the flies that are keeping him from his gardening, the Kafkaesque bureaucracy surrounding the new fly issue is getting to people like Town Manager Worcester. "I'm telling you what I'm afraid of," he says. "If the state government or the Federal Government, or the communities involved don't take any action against the new fly, people are going to do it themselves. The public knows that there is something that can be thrown in the river or sprayed on it that will get rid of them. But if they start putting insecticide into the streams on their own, you'll have fish-kills like you never had before."