scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Beware the greenhead: One man’s quest to find the perfect weapon against this wretched creature

The Globe’s Billy Baker and Southie’s Timmy Talbot put bug spray to the test.
The Globe's Billy Baker and Southie's Timmy Talbot put bug spray to the test.

ESSEX — We’re dressed in royal blue, my buddy and I, sitting in royal blue beach chairs on the salt marsh at Conomo Point, armed with a bag of supplies that would be tricky to explain if the woman who is eyeing us from her screened-in porch decides to call the cops.

We have gin and WD-40, dryer sheets and bottles of funky-smelling homemade potions, along with a foil blanket and an electrified tennis racket-looking thing.

These are weapons — allegedly — against one of the most wretched creatures on the planet, the blood-thirsty face of pure evil: the greenhead fly.


Our arsenal is based on recommendations from my Essex neighbors, tips from clammers, and sales pitches from local shopkeepers. What it is not based on is science, for scientists have repeatedly said nothing works against greenheads — they hunt visually, not by scent like a mosquito, stalking prey with their big green eyes.

So we’ve come to the salt marsh, where they live and breed, to get attacked — royal blue has been scientifically proven to be their favorite color — and to try to figure out if the people or the PhDs know what they’re talking about.

Within moments of us popping open the chairs, the enemy arrives.

Timmy Talbot sat under a reflective blanket.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

Up until a few years ago, I was only casually acquainted with the impressively awful accomplishments of the Tabanus nigrovittatus. I believe that is Latin for “Satan’s favorite insect.”

Then I moved to Essex, a lovely little town on Cape Ann known for fried clams, shipbuilding, and antique shops, all built around a beautiful salt marsh.

And that marsh is the reason why, as summer really gets going, the greenhead gossip begins ripping through town.

“Have you seen any?” “Are they out?” “I heard it’s going to be a good year.” “I heard it’s going to be a bad year.” “I think we should just nuke the entire marsh.”


That last one might have been me.

Greenheads are a type of horsefly, and each year they appear at the end of June or beginning of July, depending on the tides. The females lay their eggs, then spend the rest of their short lives — greenhead season lasts about six weeks — hunting for blood, which they need to lay a second batch of eggs.

They attack humans, horses, and livestock relentlessly. They fly in low, going for legs and bellies. With their mouths, they dig into the skin and inject their saliva, which acts as an anticoagulant. This is the part that hurts. That saliva contains a chemical that makes it feel like you’re being stabbed.

Greenheads are a type of horsefly, and each year they appear at the end of June or beginning of July, depending on the tides.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/Globe Staff/file

If that isn’t awesome enough, they prefer to attack on hot sunny days — those things we call “beach days.” There’s a reason Crane Beach, just over the border in Ipswich, puts out a sign at the entrance to the parking lot during greenhead season: No refunds.

So, how does a person combat these vile things? Every time I look into it, I run into two opposing camps: My neighbors, who all seem to know the secret to repelling them, and the scientists, who say it’s all hogwash.

“I’ve heard them all, but I don’t think any of them work,” said Gabrielle Sakolsky, an entomologist for the Cape Cod Greenhead Fly Control District whose hatred for greenheads is so deep it changed her life. She started her career studying piping plovers on Cape Cod but got so tired of being attacked by greenheads that she dedicated her life to figuring out ways to destroy the flies.


She said the odor of all our elixirs would do nothing to keep them away. But the flies might not like the feel of this stuff in their mouths. That was our best hope.

So there we were, sitting on the marsh on a perfect sunny day, with various body parts covered with different remedies.

Immediately, the flies zeroed in on my right leg, which was covered in WD-40, and Timmy’s right leg, which had been rubbed with a dryer sheet. At first, they only bit me — as Timmy laughed at my manly screams — but then the flies that had flown away from the dryer sheet returned and began feasting on that leg.

An electric tennis racket proved to be a very satisfying and successful defense against greenheads.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

It’s hard to say what they thought of the Skin So Soft and Buzz Away, which were on our other legs, because they were so in love with the smell of fresh laundry and WD-40. But we did not get bitten on those legs, nor did they pay much attention to our arms, which had the gin and a homemade oil concoction on them. And a Globe videographer who was wearing the Fin & Feather oil said they were leaving her alone (plus, she had on pants), so we’ll call that a victory for local alchemy and booze.


I tried the foil blanket — Sakolsky had told me the flies might be confused by UV reflective materials — and it seemed to work, but I had to take it off quickly because I was dripping in sweat. And because the flies were still feasting on WD-40 and fresh laundry, we busted out the electrified tennis racket, a portable bug zapper, which was so satisfying I’m surprised it’s legal.

After about 30 minutes, Timmy and my Globe colleagues had had enough of my stupid experiment, so we folded up the chairs and headed for the cars.

Who is the winner here? Who gets the final say?

The greenheads. The greenheads win. The greenheads always win.

But I’ve got The Executioner. And it’s only a few weeks till August.

Applying Skin So Soft Bug Guard was one home remedy.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
A dryer sheet is rubbed onto a leg.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
A home remedy is applied.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Billy Baker can be reached at