CAROGA – An avid hiker, Mike Sokira loves being on a trail in the Adirondacks. The closeness to pristine landscapes, the lack of electronic overload and the ability to enjoy nature at its finest all are draws to take off and enjoy the backwoods.
But one of things Sokira knows the best, as does anyone in the Northeast who has ventured into the woods in spring, is the painful nuisance the black fly is just as people are trying to enjoy the outdoors after a long winter.
“If you can imagine what it is like to have a cloud of biting black flies swarming around you and then only 10 or 12, then you can appreciate what we do,” said Sokira.
Sokira is one of dozens of local residents in the area who monitor the black fly population and treat area creeks and streams to kill the larvae before they hatch into the relentless biting insect. He is the New York state-certified Bti director for the town of Stratford and it is his job to monitor and treat the hundreds of creeks that run throughout the town for black fly larvae, making the world a little easier for residents and tourists.
Richard Nilsen of Caroga also works for the program.
“In the springtime, the black flies start to emerge from the streams,” said Nilsen, who hikes dozens of miles each spring to monitor and treat the streams as part of the state’s black fly control program. “And it is our job to look for the larvae, administer the larvicide and monitor the streams.”
According to Caroga Bti Director John Delesky, the program began 23 years ago.
“Any moving water, from a 4-inch wide trickle to one the size of Caroga Lake outlet is a potential breeding area for black flies,” said Delesky, noting most maps show only a portion of the creeks and waterways.
“The best map you can buy only shows 50 percent of the waterways, so we made our own maps,” said Delesky.
There have been over 150 streams and creeks identified in Caroga, he said.
Sokira said one of the reasons the black flies are so aggressive and relentless in their quest for hosts is a part of the breeding cycle.
“The female needs blood to lay the eggs,” said Sokira, who treats the waterways of Stratford with four others. Each technician must complete a 30-hour annual course and take two Department of Environmental Conservation tests to be certified to treat the waterways.
Nilsen said after the female lays her eggs in clear and unpolluted moving water, the eggs develop into small, worm-like larvae, which is what they look for starting in March. Once larvae are found, the stream or creek is treated with a biological larvicide called VetroBac 12AS.
“The larvae are filter feeders,” explained Sokira. “They have fans on either side of their heads and their systems are alkaline-based and the Bti crystals react with their systems, turns into a poison and kills them before they can hatch.”
He explained the larvicide they use does not harm plants or wildlife, including fish, birds and mammals.
“People are concerned when you are adding [a chemical] to a stream or waterway,” said Sokira. “But the larvicide is very innocuous and it doesn’t have the harmful effects people may think it does.”
He said the town tries to keep the program as transparent as possible.
“We notify every resident of Stratford and give them [a material safety data sheet] on the larvicide,” said Sokira. “And we ask permission to cross their lands and treat the creeks, but if they say ‘no,’ we highlight their property on the map and respect their wishes.”
Nilsen said the Caroga black fly program was started over a dozen years ago when the black flies were driving people away.
“It started in Caroga Lake when the golf course started losing memberships because the black flies were so bad,” said Nilsen.
The towns pay for the treatment program and the state requires detailed documentation on the waterways treated, the amount of larvicide used and details on individual applications.
Sokira said each town that decides to incorporate the program into their municipalities, monitor their own creeks and streams and utilize local residents to help.
“This is perfect for a retired person who loves to hike,” said Sokira, who retired seven years ago from Corning, adding that he would like to add a few more technicians to the roster. “We could definitely use a couple of more people.”
He said each certified technician goes out and looks for the larvae, which tend to hide along the bottom of the creek beds. Once larvae are located, a mathematical equation is utilized to determine the amount of larvicide to administer.
“Experimentation was done in the Adirondacks by Dr. Dan Molloy and Bob Struble and we still use their same method today,” said Sokira. “We measure the distance and depth and then the time a floating object takes to go 10 feet. We then do the math using the formula and we can figure out the discharge rate.”
That rate then tells the technicians how much larvicide to administer at given intervals for each creek.
“If it is a large creek, we may have to administer it every hundred yards,” said Sokira, adding there are also seasonal creeks and streams they also try to identify.
The treatment starts in March and runs to the end of July.
“We rarely have to treat all the way to the end of July,” said Sokira, who added there are two types of black flies, one that starts to hatch in March, weather depending, and another in May. The later black fly is not as aggressive as the first hatchlings, Sokira said.
“It is great to let people know what we are doing,” said Sokira.
Fulton County Department of Health Director Irina Gelman said that black flies are unlike mosquitoes and that the fear of the Zika virus is only connected to two types of mosquitoes, neither that are found this far north.
“It is off the radar in our area for contracting Zika from local mosquitoes,” said Gelman. “It is not a threat and we do have a plan in place.”
She said nationwide there are 426 cases of the Zika virus and almost all are related to traveling to areas of concern, such as South America.
As for this year’s black fly season, Delesky said the treatment seems to be doing what is designed to do.
“It is hard to tell at times, but it is definitely working,” said Delesky.
For more information on becoming a certified technician for black fly control, contact Sokira at (315) 429-3657.