Greenhead season is no day at the beach

A greenhead fly.
John Bohn
A greenhead fly.

Lisa Hutchings, education coordinator for school and youth programs at Mass. Audubon’s Joppa Flats Education Center in Newburyport, recalled sending some interns out to the southern point of Plum Island recently to find some animals from a tide pool she needed for a lesson.

Within 10 minutes, an attack from the greenheads sent them running for the shelter of the van.

“I was scraping the house and when I was on the ladder, they were getting my legs,” said Ray Putnam, 46, who lives on the marsh in Ipswich and counts himself among those who believe the numbers of the large blood-suckers are up this season.


In the region, concern for disease-carrying mosquitoes and ticks is always on the summer agenda, and alerts rose with the first findings of West Nile virus in samples taken in Lynn and in Newbury July 17.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

While greenheads — a type of horsefly with a big bite — don’t create the same public health concerns that mosquitoes and ticks do, the females, hungry after laying a batch of eggs, search for blood meals during breeding season, usually several weeks in July.

“If you’re not prepared, a greenhead bite can be very traumatic,” said Nancy Pau, wildlife biologist at the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island.

Those along the coast brace annually for greenhead season. Cheryl Cusack, bartender at the Beachcoma on Plum Island, has gotten mixed reviews on this year’s crop.

“I’ve had some people say that they’re bad and some say they aren’t,” said Cusack, whose boss, Greg Pugh, has a different take on the greenheads.


“They’re aggressive this year,” said Pugh, who during the spring led an effort that raised approximately $3,000 to keep 45 greenhead black-box traps in place on Newbury’s marshes. “Last year [the greenheads] were not as aggressive as they are now, but they’re hungry.

“I can’t imagine what it would be like if the boxes weren’t there. How bad would it be?”

At Crane Beach in Ipswich, a popular spot for greenheads, the telephone calls typically begin in late June, said Peter Pinciaro, who has worked on the reservation for 33 years.

“We’ll frequently get calls to the beach office, ‘How bad are the greenheads today?’ ” said Pinciaro, deputy director of the northeast region for The Trustees of Reservations, which manages the beach.

Fifth-year Crane Beach lifeguard Aaron Ross, 21, of Hamilton, theorizes that this year is no worse than last, though 2009 to 2011 were light years. “It’s about on par with last year,” he said.


Jack Card, superintendent for the Northeast Massachusetts Mosquito Control and Wetlands Management District, said that he hasn’t noticed an increase in the greenhead population, but that people may be noticing them more because they take a higher profile in certain weather conditions.

Last year the greenheads ‘were not as aggressive as they are now, but they’re hungry. I can’t imagine what it would be like if the boxes weren’t there. How bad would it be?’

“When it’s sunny with no wind, they’re more aggressive and you’ll see them hovering,” Card said, noting that the recent heat wave brought out the worst in the flies.

Bethany Groff, longtime manager of Historic New England’s Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm in Newbury, said that she’s never been able to figure out why the greenheads seem more aggressive some days than others. But she thinks that at least this year, some people are letting expectations get the better of them.

“I think there’s a perception that there are less traps [on the marsh], so people think it’s worse,” she said.

Carol Gray, director of the Sawyer Free Library in Gloucester, said that last weekend she enjoyed a greenhead-free experience at Gloucester’s Plum Cove Beach on Sunday, but the previous day at an event in Essex, “They were a little vicious.”

Some also say the large flies are coming further inland than in past years.

After checking with park rangers and park managers on Department of Conservation and Recreation properties along the coast and inland, Mike Nelson, deputy regional ranger for the north region, said he has heard reports that the greenheads have been particularly aggressive in Salisbury, but have not been much of a factor at the DCR’s noncoastal properties or at beaches in Lynn, Nahant, Revere, and East Boston.

But “one ranger said he got bit in his yard in East Boston,” Nelson said.

Mike Ryley, president of Andover Pest Control, said that he’s received two calls about greenheads this year, including one from the inland town of Boxford, not usually a greenhead town. “I generally don’t have any,” he said.

Ryley noted that there are no biological controls for greenheads. “If you’re in a small area like a pool, you can get [fly] traps, but that’s about all you can do.”

Margie Pascetta, co-owner of Topsfield-based Mosquito Squad of the North Shore, said that while her company’s expertise is in barrier spraying to control mosquitoes and ticks, she gets plenty of greenhead calls as well.

“We could make a million dollars if we could figure out how to control greenheads,” said Pascetta, who said she hasn’t gotten more calls than usual this year, but thinks that the activity has started earlier than usual. “A lot of people are interested in it, but it’s a very short season.”

Chris Cassenti, owner of Chrislar Farm in Rowley on Route 133 near Interstate 95, said that in her town, the greenheads stay closer to the marsh.

“Over there, they’re loaded — loaded,” Cassenti said. “Once the sun is out, they can’t leave horses outside. They need to bring them in until dusk.”

Greenheads are especially attracted to the underside of dark-skinned animals, such as horses and cows. If the greenheads are moving inland, said Pau, it is because development of land has cleared them a path.

“They typically won’t go over trees and shrubs, but if you clear away the shrubs as a boundary, there is no barrier or deterrent to the greenhead, so it will fly toward the horses,” she said.

As for those on the beach, “If people are swimming and then they lie down, [greenheads] love the salty, wet skin, and they’re not moving so they’re easy targets,” Pau said.

For those who live in places like Ipswich, greenheads are just something to deal with, said Lisa Kennedy, who was going to Crane Beach on a recent day with two daughters and two nieces. She planned to rely on the ocean breeze and Avon’s Skin So Soft, which many believe is an effective repellent for the breed.

On other days, she’s had a different strategy.

“We’ve been going to Gloucester to avoid them,” she said.

David Rattigan may be reached at