Negotiating with Bugs on Assateague Island National Seashore

Negotiating with Bugs on Assateague Island National Seashore

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Like caribou in Alaska, Assateague Island’s wild horses on the Maryland coast hope to escape the bugs by taking a dip in water. In this case, the Atlantic Ocean.

Most people don’t expect to talk their way out of a bug bite. But as I sat on the famous barrier island of Assateague swarmed by black flies, I leaned you can use a gentle yet persuasive tone to encourage insects to back off.

I had expected to see the iconic wild horses frolicking in the surf, my main draw to Maryland’s Atlantic coast for an overnight camp trip at one of the park’s 50-plus tent-only ocean-front sites. Instead, I was greeted by mosquitoes in the marshes near the campground parking lot and black flies on the beach. Deet helped fend off the mosquitoes. The black flies, on the other hand, were another matter. Not even the 15 mph wind kept them at bay.

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Black flies seem to prefer the drier sand away from the tide, but even the harder wet sand didn’t repel them—until I used some reason.

Sitting on my towel watching steel gray waves crash against the sandy coastline, I swatted and swore at the pesky insects, worried I might be getting too old and impatient for camping. Then I changed tactics. At first I admit I started to talk to the flies because there was no one else to chat with. I had come alone, and the seashore was mostly vacant on that sweltering mid-May Wednesday.

“There’s no need to bite me,” I told them. “You can’t possibly have any need for me. What do I have that you want?”

What they want, I learned after some research later, is blood. And it turns out only the females bite. She needs blood to nourish her eggs, so they can hatch and live out their lifespans of two to three weeks to annoy other living creatures.

Although I stressed over the tic-tac-sized pests, I remembered there’s supposed to be something meditative in their bites. There are a special kind of people who even hike into Florida’s Everglades and strip naked to experience mosquito swarms to achieve a kind of Nirvana. Scratching at my growing welts, I hoped my body’s production of natural histamines might make me feel comfortably numb too. But the simuliidae’s scissor-like fangs dug into my sun-tendered skin and hurt like hell upon impact. Their bite is far more painful than the common mosquito’s. It feels like a quick needle jab, and they come within seconds of each other.

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These hoof prints, along with lots of droppings, are tell-tale signs that horses have recently been on the beach.

And so, I spoke to them, steady and commanding. Still they bit. During all this, the feral horses remained scarce. Signs of their passing—hoof prints and dung piles in the sand—showed they frequented the area. I figured they were avoiding the insects like any sensible creature should. I remained on my beach towel, sandwiched between blue sky and tawny sand with the wind whirling around and tried to reason with the bugs.

“You have no interest in me,” I told the flies. “Just buzz off and no one will get hurt.”

They continued to land on my exposed arms and legs, but the biting eased. I realized the flies were listening.

Carbon dioxide attracts insects, so you’d think speaking to them would entice more of them. But perhaps it was my firm voice that stopped them. Or maybe the chest cold I was nursing held a special agent that detracted them. Or, like the Everglades mosquitophiles, their bites could have made me a little buzzed and I no longer noticed their chomping into my flesh.

Now and then one would come in for a dive but I’d remind them of our pact. “Don’t breach our treaty,” I’d warn the kamikazes with a flick. “We have an understanding. You don’t bite me and I don’t squash you.”

On day two, after a wonderful bugless night sleeping on the soft sand beneath my tent, I awoke to the park’s star attractions poking around outside. Four horses were scrutinizing the campsite. I didn’t dare to climb out. On instinct, I used the same approach with the flies.

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Peering out the back flap of my tent, I notice I have early morning visitors.

“It’s in everyone’s best interest if you back off,” I said to them while holding up my tent flap. “Your bosses the park rangers warn about getting too close. That means you too.”

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Feral horses give an early morning inspection to my camp.

I finally crawled out and stood by a safe distance while I watched them turn over my camp. Generations of conditioning by sloppy tourists resulted in their developing amazing dexterity with their mouths. A chocolate brown mare tested my flip flops I had left on the sand by the tent flap. She lifted them with her teeth without making a dent, then dropped them when she realized they had no flavor. A pinto grabbed a plastic bag that had held my firewood wedged in the picnic table slat. He turned it over, held it upside down and shook it. When nothing came out (such as pretzels or Cheetos), he dropped it into the wind. I had no doubt if they wanted they could easily have shredded my tent to get to my cooler.

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This pinto is hoping I left something extra in the fire ring.
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These feral horses are ignoring the park’s regulations to keep at least 10 feet away from humans.

The small herd moved down to the next camp. Each site lies about 20 yards apart so the horses remained close enough for me to study their cavalier behavior. These husky mammals who have called the barrier island home for 500 years (most experts believe they swam to shore from a shipwrecked Spanish galleon), provided far more entertainment than the bugs.

More people had arrived overnight and they began awaking to find the 800-pounders steps away from their tents. Despite the park’s efforts to minimize habituation, I saw campers feed the horses and snap their photos a mere few feet away. A teenage girl even pet a yearling’s muzzle. Not that the horses seemed to mind any of it.

Later, on the beach, I watched the horses walking along the shore. The black flies, for the most part, kept to our deal. Just when I was wondering how the horses coped with the incessant bugs, a herd of about a dozen, led by an alpha male, rushed into the pounding surf. They were not horsing around. Waves splashed against legs surprisingly frail-looking for something designed to hold up such bulk. The horses could not reason with their neighbor bugs like me. Their only remedy: salt water. For a while, they seemed content.

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Horses strike a pose along the windswept beach. Huddled together they seem more able to ward off the bugs and wind.

As the sun rose higher and hotter, I packed up my camp and hiked to my car. At the gate, I turned and mouthed, “See you next time,” happy I had kept the peace with the horses and bugs. We had forged a pact, and it worked. Or so I wanted to believe. Perhaps like the Everglades nudists, I had subconsciously accepted the bugs as part of becoming one with nature. After all, outdoor fun and insects are inseparable. But I really wanted to believe I had created a genuine bond with them.

A few days later while staying at my sister’s Delaware beach house, I caught my brother-in-law squash a black fly on their dining table. I said nothing, but to my own surprise, I had winced.

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Gate at Assateague Island campground allegedly to keep out wild horses and deer, but not the bugs.


Sources
:

Assateague Island National Seashore Park Service
Black flies
Mosquitoes and meditation 

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