Zoology professor John Burger studies bloodsucking insects—black flies, mosquitoes, deer flies, horse flies, ticks. He keeps a Ziplock bag full of black flies from Alaska in his office, a gift from a friend.

Q: Why flies?

A: After I graduated from college in 1962, I went to a field station in northern Minnesota, where I became aware of mosquitoes. Lots of mosquitoes. Very forcefully. I got to wondering where the darned things were coming from. I started collecting mosquitoes to identify them. In graduate school that fall, I decided to study them, looking at habitats, life cycles and so forth. I was working in a canyon outside Tucson, Ariz., and a flash flood destroyed all my research. So I said to my professor, "What the heck do I do now?" He said, "You'll have to come up with another project."

I ended up studying the ecological succession of insects on dead bodies. Dead-body bugs. A lot of which are flies. I could get a steady supply of euthanized animals from the local pound. I put them outside and studied the decomposition by flies and beetles. You can call it forensic entomology if you want to be fancy about it. Nature has a way of cleaning up. Later when I went to Berkeley, they were working on cow poop. When a cow poops there's a whole succession of insects that come along. I had worked in Yellowstone, which has bison. The poops of bison and cattle are similar. I thought it would be interesting to compare the insects in bison poop with cattle poop. I spent a couple of summers doing that. Again, it's all flies.

Q: You helped the folks at the Balsams Resort in Dixville Notch solve their black fly problem.

A: They told me they were losing $10 million a year because of black flies. I didn't believe it. But they said nobody would come in the spring because of the black flies. We figured out where the concentrations were, and treated the streams with bacillus thuringiensis israelensis. When the bacteria get into the fly's digestive system, they die. It only takes a couple of minutes. We got rid of 80 percent the first year, and 95 percent the second. The Balsams people were so happy—it was the miracle of the black flies.

Q: Do we need black flies?

A: They feed on all kinds of organic matter. Birds, fish eat them.

Q: So if you get rid of them up at the Balsams?

A: It's not really a problem, because it's a limited area. There isn't anything that's so specialized that it feeds only on black flies. Fish will eat anything they can catch. Birds feed on flying insects. Doesn't matter if they're black flies or dragonflies as far as a bird's concerned.

Q: Are black flies your favorites?

A: No. Horse flies.

Q: What's something surprising about horse flies?

A: There are horse flies that pollinate flowers. There are mosquitoes in northern New Hampshire that pollinate bog orchids.

Q: Ticks, and Lyme disease, have become a huge problem in the southern part of New Hampshire. Why don't we get rid of ticks like you did the black flies at the Balsams?

A: Where do you spray? How are you going to find them? Actually, the tick that transmits Lyme disease has not been here very long and has never been very common. If you look at the historical records of ticks in New Hampshire and you go back 50 years, you don't see this tick. Did it come up from the South? It gets very complicated.

Q: Is there anything that works against black flies?

A: DEET works pretty well.

Q: I heard a defense against deer flies is to put a yellow cup on your head and coat it with something sticky.

A: I've heard that. I've never tried it. Someone said if you swing a badminton racket over your head, it'll smash the deer flies. I bought one and tried it. It didn't work very well.

Rebecca Rule '76, '79G is an author, storyteller, story gatherer and humorist.

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