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Celebrate Black Fly Day!

November 21, 2017

Celebrating Black Fly Day

An excerpt from the chapter “Mother Mary Comes to Me: Insects as Creators and Bodhisattvas” in Eat the Beetles: An Exploration into our Conflicted Relationship with Insects (EWC, 2017) by David Waltner-Toews

We’re in love and it’s a buggy day.

Good nutrition. Ecological sustainability. Fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Are those black flies singing? Is this a fantasy?

In the United States, Black Friday, the day after American Thanksgiving, is a frenzied, greed-driven, chaotic shopping day. In 2012, Doug Currie, Vice-President, Department of Natural History and Senior Curator of Entomology at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, launched Black Fly Day as an antidote to the toxic commercialism of the day. Currie’s 1988 Ph.D. dissertation was on black flies, and he has done extensive research into the diversity and biogeography of northern Holarctic black flies. His book on the Simuliidae (black flies) of North America, co-authored with Peter Adler and D. Monty Wood, won the 2004 Association of American Publishers Award for Best Single-Volume Reference in the Sciences. So the proposal for a Black Fly Day was not necessarily a frivolous pun. But still, one might ask: why would one want to celebrate such a terrible pest?

Black flies are infamous in many parts of the world, mostly because of a few blood-sucking, death-dealing, river blindness–bearing black sheep (if black flies may indeed be said to have black sheep) in the family. But some of them can be seen from a more ambiguous perspective. Globally, humans have been rapidly blundering into and destroying many of the earth’s most important and stunningly complex ecosystems. Who has protected the few remaining natural refuges from the depredations of humans? In the Arctic, in those few weeks that aren’t butt-freezing cold, those great eco-warriors have been black flies.

In North America, home to slightly more than a tenth of the approximately 1,800 species of black flies, they are mostly nuisances with benefits. The larvae are fastidious and only live in fresh, flowing, oxygenated, pollution-free water; so if you see them when you go swimming, it’s a good sign. The males drink nectar and pollinate flowers; they are the Ferdinands — the flower-smelling non-fighting bulls — of the bug world. Four species of male black flies have given up sex altogether, and the females reproduce parthenogenetically. In those species where the females have a taste for mammalian blood, they prefer nonhumans. Females from eight of the nine species restricted to the Canadian tundra don’t even have the necessary blood-feeding mouthparts.

So, are they good? Are they bad? Like all of us, they are a complex mix, to be celebrated, feared, and, in the spirit of biophilia, loved.

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