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Greenhead season plagues Mass. ocean towns

The greenheads are especially nasty this year, thanks in part to the heat.
The greenheads are especially nasty this year, thanks in part to the heat.Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

IPSWICH – July is the cruelest month in Ipswich. Just as the perfect beach weather arrives, so too does the perfect beach pest: the greenhead fly. Crane Beach, a gorgeous stretch of New England coast, transforms into a killing field. Flip-flops become weapons. Death is the only thing that stops these flies.

There is no such thing as a good greenhead season in Ipswich, but in this town of 13,000 where greenhead gossip borders on an obsession, locals speak fearfully of the really bad years. And by all accounts, 2012 is one of them. The greenheads have come early and they have come heavy.

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“It’s been dry and hot, and that’s the perfect weather for greenheads. They like the full sun, and there has been nothing to stop them from doing their thing,” said Jack Card, director of the Northeast Massachusetts Mosquito & Wetlands Management District. “We try to get our traps out by the Fourth of July, but this year, with the weather, we saw them a week or two early. And when they have longer to get going, we get a bad year.”

Adam Genninger of Hudson and his sons Tommy, 6, and Liam, 9, decided to cake sand on themselves as a strategy to protect against the nasty bite of the greenheads on an otherwise nice summer day at Crane Beach in Ipswich.
Adam Genninger of Hudson and his sons Tommy, 6, and Liam, 9, decided to cake sand on themselves as a strategy to protect against the nasty bite of the greenheads on an otherwise nice summer day at Crane Beach in Ipswich.JOANNE RATHE/GLOBE STAFF/Globe Staff

What makes the greenhead so despised is the exquisite pain of its bite.

“It’s worse than a tattoo,” said Emily Braunhardt, an 18-year-old from Connecticut who met her first greenhead at Crane Beach two weeks ago. “I’m not kidding. I have a tattoo, and it’s worse than needles in your back.”

A mosquito inserts a long proboscis into victims, but a female greenhead is not nearly as elegant in extracting its meal.

“They have mouth parts that slash a hole in the skin to create a pool of blood. Then they spit their saliva into the human to act as an anticoagulant. Then they have other mouth parts that sponge up the blood,” said Gabrielle Sakolsky, an entomologist and the assistant superintendent of the Cape Cod Greenhead Fly Control District, which has also seen greenheads in considerably higher numbers than in recent years.

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The pain comes not from the bite itself, Sakolsky said, but from the body reacting to the chemical in the bugs’ saliva.

The greenhead — a type of horsefly named for its bright green eyes — can ruin a beach day in towns all up and down the coast, wherever there is a large salt marsh for them to breed in. From Duxbury Beach to Sandy Neck in Barnstable to Nauset Beach in Orleans, they are a regular, and detested, part of July.

But in Ipswich, locals take a peculiar pride in the severity of their problem, which is due to the fact that the town sits in the middle of an area of dense marshland that stretches from Newbury and Rowley to its north to Essex and Gloucester to its south. The infestation is so shocking to visitors that during greenhead season, Crane Beach puts out a sign at the entrance to its parking lot informing beachgoers that the greenheads are out, and there will be no refunds.

Shops in town sell greenhead T-shirts and jewelry; a local distiller makes Old Ipswich Greenhead Spiced Rum; and Downriver Ice Cream sells a greenhead ice cream (minty ice cream with chewy chocolate chips). But not all are so interested in celebrating their most famous pest. A few years ago, when a toy store named for the insect opened in town, so many people hated the name that the owners quickly changed it to Green Elephant.

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But for all the suffering they inflict and the golf ball-size welts they leave behind, there is revenge to be had. “My friend killed 25 in one day, and arranged them in a little cemetery,” said Lily Savoie, a 19-year-old lifeguard at Crane Beach.

The greenhead isn’t a particularly fast bug, but to kill them requires a bit of patience, locals in Ipswich say.

“You have to watch them and hesitate, let them land on you and concentrate on biting you,” said Carole Grady of Ipswich as she sat in a chair next to her husband, John, on Crane Beach. “When they get lined up, that’s when you go. Here, watch,” she said, as a greenhead arrived on cue and got ready to do its thing.

Grady watched it for a moment, then brought her hand down hard.

“Now it’s dead,” she said.

If you just swat them away, they will keep coming back. Ask any horse or deer.

The best weapon against them are the traps, which are designed to look like an animal on legs (many think they look more like a child’s desk). In Barnstable County on Cape Cod, the state lays out 900 traps on marshes – the $23,000 cost is split amongst 15 towns – and a single trap baited with Octenol, a chemical attractant, can collect 30,000 flies in a typical season, according to Sakolsky.

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“This year, we’ve been monitoring the traps, and there’s definitely more than you usually see at this point in the season,” she said.

The length and severity of the greenhead season depends on storms and tides. If the marshes are flooded at the end of June, when the larvae come up out of the soil where they have spent the winter, it can delay their hatching and lead to a light season, such as was the case last year, when the water was held on the marshes longer, according to Sakolsky.

A heavy tide or storm at the end of their cycle can also cut the season short, leaving the insects without a place to set down on the marshes to rest and hide from the birds that eat them. But with so many variables, it’s impossible to tell how this season will play out.

In the meantime, it’s up to the traps, the birds, and the flip-flops to control the problem.

At Crane Beach, 11-year-old Thanos Arvinicis of Belmont was on the hunt. He comes to the beach often with his family; he has seen the lifeguards line up their kills on the sand; and he was building his own cemetery.

“Got one,” he said as a greenhead plummeted to the sand. But only for a split second.

“Danger, danger,” he shouted as the fly fluttered to life and took off again.

Then he offered his own bit of greenhead advice, the sort more common in zombie movies. “You have to kill them twice,” he said.

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