It’s a part of life almost everywhere at the Jersey Shore this time of year, whether you’re fishing at the bay, birdwatching in the marshes or trying to soak up the sun at the beach. Despite what you may have heard — or tried — there’s nothing that can keep the greenheads at bay.
More on that — and eight other things you may not have known about N.J.’s unofficial mascot — below.
Photo provided by John Stoffolano, University of Massachusetts Amherst
1. Is it just a Jersey thing?
Jersey isn’t the only unfortunate place to be blessed by the greenhead. They’re found everywhere from Nova Scotia to Texas — anywhere that has the coastal grasses that are prime spots for reproduction.
One can argue that July is really the start of beach season. The temperatures soar during the day and the nights are hot and humid.
Beachgoers love it and so do the greenheads.
“Insect development — especially anything that would rely on some sort of hotter, warmer weather — that’s when everything sort of peaks,” said Kyle Rossner, an entomologist at the Cape May County Department of Mosquito Control.
Greenhead season begins late June and runs through early August, with July being the worst month.
“This greenhead seems to be a resident of more saline-like salt marsh areas, so that’s why when you're at the shore — especially the barrier islands or
the bay shore — you seem to be a favorite among them,” said Rossner.
A horse is covered to protect from biting insects as two men harvest salt hay in Atlantic County during the early 1900s. (Photo provided by the Atlantic County Historical Society)
2. How long have they been here?
Around the 1860s, the greenheads were so bad in Atlantic City that the shoobies, who traveled in by train, turned around and got right back on, said Atlantic County Historical Society volunteer Norman Goos, recalling a story he read.
“Not only did the people get back on the trains to go home, but the animals were driven crazy,” said Goos. “Blood was running down their sides.”
But Goos believes people battled greenheads way before then. Between 1725 and 1775, families began buying property on the mainland for farming, raising cattle and fishing.
“They complained about them being on the marshes,” said Goos.
And that’s where they’ve stayed. Because their habitat is fairly protected, there’s not much of a threat to their population, said Peter Bosak, superintendent of the Cape May County Mosquito Control. And the dose level of spray used to control mosquitoes has no effect on them.
And the greenheads have only gotten smarter.
A greenhead fly caught on Brigantine beach, Tuesday, July 3, 2018. (Tim Hawk | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)
“This fly, over years and years of evolution, and the lack of blood because there's not a lot of organisms on the marsh that they can get blood from, they evolved a strategy called autogeny,” said John Stoffolano, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “That means they (the females) can develop eggs without a blood meal.”
“Flying sperm packets” is how Rossner describes the male greenhead, and that’s good news for the females who just want to reproduce.
Once the flies emerge from the pupae, the males hover like helicopters over certain areas, explains Stoffolano. The females are attracted to them, then yadda yadda yadda, they are ready to lay eggs.
So if momma-fly hasn’t yet laid her eggs, she won’t come looking for you.
Once they lay that first batch of eggs, they become extremely aggressive, searching for a meal so they can continue their mission.
But most won’t get that blood meal, because thankfully for us we are terrible hosts, armed with deadly hands to swat them away. Livestock aren’t so lucky.
The salt marshes at the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Galloway, Friday, June 22, 2018. Brigantine island is in the background. (Tim Hawk | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)
3. How do you know if it'll be a bad day at the beach?
At Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Galloway, which covers approximately 16,000 acres of salt marsh, the greenheads are pretty intense, according to Keena Nichelle Graham, visitor services manager.
They will follow your car, explained Graham. “You can hear them hitting against your windows.”
But that does not deter the passionate bird watchers, who will leave the safety of their car, camera in hand, just for the chance to capture that perfect image.
Beachgoers take advantage of the sun at Island Beach State Park Wednesday, July 11, 2018. (Tim Hawk | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)
In a calendar year more than one million people flock to the 10 miles of pristine shore line of Island Beach State Park in Berkeley Township, which is separated from the salt marshes by Barnegat Bay.
People will often call the park to check on the greenhead situation that day, said Charlie Welch, assistant superintendent for Island Beach State Park.
“People just push through it,” said Welch, when talking about the beachgoers who choose to battle the flying nuisances on a heavy greenhead day.
“If it’s a westerly wind you will encounter more flies,” he said.
The island offers fine white sand, nature programs, bird watching, a relaxing atmosphere, and during the months of July and early August, greenheads.
“The only drawback to paradise here,” said Welch.
4. How do they find you?
Unlike the mosquito, who can smell its prey, greenheads rely on their sight.
“Greenheads are visual hunters. That’s why they have these big massive eyes,” Bosak said.
They are also attracted to darker colors and can detect body heat with their special thermal receptors in their antennae, explains Stoffolano.
“First it's vision: they see you, they fly to you, they land on you. With their thermal receptors they identify you as a warm-blooded animal. That induces them to begin to probe or bite,” said Stoffolano.
“Movement, color and heat are all like a perfect recipe for getting hit by them,” said Rossner.
5. How do you keep them from biting (other than fleeing for the ocean and staying in the water neck-deep)?
From the shore local to the seasonal tourist, they all have their theories on how to ward off the bloodthirsty greenhead.
Some of these include using garlic supplements, a mix of Listerine and water, a mix of vodka and citronella, DEET with dry gin, and Pesky Bug Stay Away Spray — alone or mixed with mouthwash. Lisa Messinger, who has a place in Osborn Island in Little Egg Harbor Township, heard that cactus juice or dryer sheets will do the trick.
A light-colored physical barrier is best, which includes long pants and long sleeves. Avoid wearing darker colors.
Not quite beachwear for those beautiful days at the shore.
(Tim Hawk | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)
6. Why do their their bites hurt so much?
“The unfortunate thing about greenheads is that they tend to be much more painful than other insect bites because of the way that they bite," said Dr. Edward Fog, Regional Medical Director for AtlanticCare Urgent Care.
The greenhead is very similar to your favorite chef, who can slice and dice their way to that perfect meal — except the meal is your blood.
Stoffolano explains that the bugs have special structures with teeth on them — like an arrow — that they push into your skin. Their mandibles, which are similar to a pair of razor-sharp scissors, cut the tissue. As all this is happening, the special teeth-like structures pull the head and mouthparts deeper into your skin. Then they use something similar to a sponge to channel the blood into their mouth.
As bad as it all sounds, that’s not what causes the sharp pain that will have you swatting at your skin and cursing.
When they hit your blood, they release saliva “and that is what hurts,” he said. The saliva is a foreign protein that our bodies respond to. It also prevents coagulation and increases blood flow to that area.
“You can’t drink a really thick milkshake,” Stoffolano said.
You took all the precautions, tried repellents anyway, and kept your head on a swivel — and you still got bit. All that’s left is an itchy welt and the memory of the pain.
Fog recommends that if you do get bit, clean the wound with soap and water and make sure the skin stays clean. He urges people to avoid scratching the bite, which could introduce bacteria and become infected. Instead, put hydrocortisone cream on it if it’s really itchy and keep it covered. A cool compress will also help.
The itching could last from a day to a week or longer, said Fog.
If you do cave in to scratching that itch that just won't stop, keep an eye out for signs of infection, such as if the wound becomes hot, painful, red, or swollen, and if there is any type of drainage.
“They tend to be more of a nuisance type of thing and kind of ruin your day rather than causing significant medical issues,” said Fog.
8. The good news (and bad news)
If you haven’t swatted all the bugs to death or had them splattered across your windshield, come winter they’ll all be dead.
The bad news? They’ve already reproduced.
“What they leave behind are their eggs and their larvae,” explains Bosak — between 200 to 300 of them per insect.
“They live along the muddy banks of all the little rivulets you see in the marsh,” said Bosak. They’ll slither around, hunt other organisms, and survive through the winter to the next year, emerging as adults in spring with one goal — to reproduce.