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Greenhead flies: The bug that just won’t die

I was convinced greenheads couldn't be stopped. Then someone began leaving mysterious voicemails about grenades.

A most hideous nemesis, Tabanus nigrovittatus, and as usual, it was out for blood.
A most hideous nemesis, Tabanus nigrovittatus, and as usual, it was out for blood.Wilson, Mark Globe Staff

As I unfolded my beach chair on the edge of the salt marsh, I was violating my two golden rules.

One: Never go near a salt marsh on a sunny day in July. And two: Never trust a grown man who still goes by a nickname that ends in “y.”

Yet there I was, lured onto the battlefield by a 56-year-old New Jersey man named Scotty Macom who had been leaving mysterious voicemails on my phone at the Globe, promising something I had long sought, something that seemed impossible.

Scotty Macom said he had the cure for greenhead flies.

If you are unfamiliar with greenheads, here is a quick primer: They are the single most evil creatures on planet Earth. They also happen to be my arch-nemesis, the source of so much spilled ink that my editors are, at this moment, on a Zoom call muttering about that fact that I’m doing another story on greenheads.

But this one was different, I promised. Or Scotty Macom promised. He has a seductive way with words. Did I mention that he’s a lawyer? Either way, I took his bait and got on the phone, and he immediately told me that this all started a few years ago, when he was sitting by a community pool on the outskirts of Atlantic City, trying to relax after his wife had taken the kids and run off with another guy.

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This is how all great stories begin, so I was rapt.

Macom said that while he was sitting by the pool he was attacked by a swarm of greenheads, which set him on a quest to figure out how to ward them off, a journey that ultimately led him to develop something he called the “Greenaid.”

Except he pronounced it like the word “grenade.”

“What’s in it?” I asked.

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“Can’t tell you,” he replied.

I insisted he mail me some grenades immediately.

Did I mention that his slogan is “If you need a lawyer, look up a lawyer. If you need a miracle, call me”?

I was indeed searching for a miracle, which is why Macom had found his way to me. I’m not one to brag, but I have ignored the groans of my editors and established myself as perhaps the world’s foremost journalist on the subject of Tabanus nigrovittatus, a type of horsefly that is so exquisitely wicked you have to tip your cap to them. (Only do this if you’ve already used said cap to swat them to death.)

If you are unfamiliar with greenheads, here is a quick primer: They are the single most evil creatures on planet Earth.
If you are unfamiliar with greenheads, here is a quick primer: They are the single most evil creatures on planet Earth.Ally Rzesa

Each year, greenheads crawl out of the muck in salt marshes at the end of June or beginning of July, desperately hungry because it has been a long journey from hell. They will then spend about six weeks hunting for blood. This sounds like the start of the “summer camp” chapter in a vampire romance novel. It is unfortunately true. The females need a blood meal to lay a second batch of eggs, and to get that they fly in low on animals, use their sharp mouth parts to hack away at the skin, then inject saliva to act as an anticoagulant. This is the part that makes you feel like you’re being stabbed by a broken bottle, and it will leave behind a welt the size of a Gronkowski.

We’re only getting started. Did I mention that they’re also zombies? You can swat them with all your might, and they will lay there for a few seconds and then magically come back to life and start attacking again. The key, in my experience, is to use those few seconds to quickly back over them with a minivan.

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Greenheads prefer to attack on sunny “beach days,” because of course they do. And unlike mosquitoes, they are visual hunters, so experts will tell you that scent-based insect repellants are useless. The best you might hope for is that they don’t like the feel of the repellant in their mouths when they start slashing away at you with the Ginsu knives.

I happen to live in a town on the Great Marsh that is plagued by greenheads during the heart of summer. And when they arrive, so too does the annual group lie about ways to prevent them, even though scientists have made very clear that the only thing that will stop them is the arrival of August.

A few summers ago, as an experiment, I went into the marsh with my friend Timmy and we tested out all the alleged repellants — from gin and WD-40 to dryer sheets and Skin-So-Soft — to prove once and for all that NOTHING WORKS.

It was the most painful 30 minutes of my life, and I’ve sat through an elementary school talent show.

But I’m nothing if not a naive optimist, and the day Macom’s package arrived I ripped open the box to find, um . . . copper bracelets inside flexible plastic tubes filled with some clear mystery liquid?

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I was not deterred, and continued to nod my head when I got back on the phone with Macom and he informed me that people were buying them like crazy — the bracelets sell for $23.99 on Amazon — and he was going to sell his company in two years for $140 million and then head to Australia to strike it rich at some gold claims that had been abandoned because the biting flies were so bad.

All that was left was the mere formality of testing them out, so I enlisted Timmy’s help again. But this time, as we set out into the marsh, I informed him that the joke was on him. He would be the “control,” meaning he would be armed with nothing. Meanwhile, I would be wearing these magical bracelets and anklets that were supposed to refract in their big green eyes and make the flies turn away. As Macom explained, “It’s like when a cop shines a flashlight in your face.”

We popped open our chairs in the exact spot where we’d done the last experiment — on a notoriously bad stretch leading to Robbins Island in Essex — and before I could marvel at how much I felt like Wonder Woman in my shiny protective bracelets, a greenhead landed on the Greenaid on my ankle and then bit me underneath it.

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I chalked it up to beginner’s luck, until another one landed on the Greenaid on my wrist and began to dine. Within seconds, I was being swarmed like a middle-schooler who opens a fresh pack of gum on the bus.

I lasted about two minutes before I was out of my chair, screaming unapologetically and doing the greenhead dance, which looks a lot like that leg-slapping dance they do at Oktoberfest in Germany, except in this case you’re trying to make the pain go away by actually chopping your legs off.

Timmy, meanwhile, was sitting about 30 feet away, letting the flies go to town on his legs without making so much as a peep, just to prove some kind of point. (See: golden rule #2.)

“Maybe greenheads are different down in New Jersey?” he asked as he watched me dance.

Maybe. Our experiment lasted about 15 minutes, and it was an abject failure. But I tried again the following day, at a nearby beach with my family; this test ended with my Greenaid-clad 10-year-old screaming and running for the car.

When I called Scotty Macom to tell him that the Greenaid didn’t seem to do anything, he sounded genuinely flabbergasted. And sad. Which made two of us.

For as I sit here examining the series of events that led me to acquire the swollen red welts that are currently occupying the spots where my ankles used to be, I can draw only one conclusion.

Next time, we need to use actual grenades.


Billy Baker can be reached at billy.baker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.