When Jane and I lived in South Florida, I thought the small coal-black mosquitoes that swarmed around us in clouds when we went into the Everglades were the world's most annoying and aggressive biting insects. But now that we've lived in eastern North Carolina for a while, I'm convinced that the deer flies that emerge here every year around this time make the Glades mosquito look timid and withdrawing by comparison.
And after battling these crazed insects while working for a few hours this morning in a neighbor's yard, using a .44-caliber magnum pistol to kill them seems perfectly reasonable to me.
It takes me 15 or 20 seconds to walk to an outbuilding at the back of our property. When I make that walk this time of year, I'm likely to feel five or six deer flies bounce off my head.
I started calling these beastly insects "kamikaze bugs" the first time I encountered them. There is nothing subtle about how they approach a target. They just come at you full tilt and don't stop until they slam into you. And if they bounce off, they slam into you again. And when I feel one hit me, I slap angrily and reflexively, and I often feel something disgustingly wet and squishy but also primitively satisfying beneath my hand. Hence my nickname for them.
But the most annoying thing about deer flies is their bite. It's not nearly as painful as a bee or yellow-jacket sting, but it is a tiny, sharp and annoying nip on your exposed skin -- and at this time of year here in the South, people are exposing more skin every day.
I grew up about 250 miles southwest of here in the North Carolina Piedmont. I spent an awful lot of time outdoors, especially in the spring and summer. I remember several biting insects that were a warm-weather annoyance -- giant horseflies, small bee-like insects we called "sweat bees," and the ubiquitous mosquitoes -- but I don't remember being bedeviled by deer flies.
Deer flies emerge here in late April or early May, and live until around early August. That's not a long time for them to accomplish whatever task the Creator assigned them in the Grand Scheme of Things. But whatever their purpose is -- and it clearly involves sucking blood -- they pursue it with a frenzied gusto during the few months that they have.
A website produced by the Illinois Department of Public Health (apparently they also have them up there) says deer flies are attracted to their targets by the carbon dioxide and moisture that is exhaled during breathing. Their bite is painful because of their tiny, scissors-like jaws. The bite draws blood, and the bugs are happy -- at least until they're reduced to a bloody pulp by an enraged swat from their victim.
So it's early May here in North Carolina and these tiny nemeses have become part of the backdrop of the emerging season, along with the herring run on the Roanoke River, fading azalea flowers and magnolia blossoms that will open in a few weeks. And if our neighbors hear sporadic gunfire from our property during the next few months, they'll know I'm working in the yard.
Photo by R.C. Axtell, North Carolina State University