Bug Latitudes

By Tom Neale, 4/17/2007


Tom Neale's logs have a new name and home on BoatUS Magazine. We know Tom has a loyal and devoted readership, so we wanted to share his tips and insights with an even bigger audience! For the latest articles, click here for Onboard With Tom Neale.

Praying Mantis on Chez Nous
The horse latitudes were so named because, in the olden days of sail, Spanish galleons trying to make it through the area on the way to the “ New World” would sometimes remain becalmed for so long that the desperate sailors would throw the horses overboard to lighten the load. On Chez Nous we deal with the bug latitudes. It’s an entirely different concept. In the first place, I don’t think I could ever bring myself to throw a horse overboard (well, come to think of it, I don’t think I could ever bring myself to bring a horse onboard). And in the second place, bug latitudes have nothing to do with throwing bugs over, although you wish you could. It’s about the fact that as you move from latitude to latitude up and down the coast the types of bugs that come aboard changes.

I could start with Key West but for the sake of brevity (and a few other things) I’ll start with the south Florida mainland. I could also start with the Bahamas, but that’s a whole ‘nother story for another time. If you’re in Ft. Lauderdale or Miami in the winter time there are seldom any flies, mosquitoes or gnats. Of course if you go looking for them, like going way up the New River or the Miami River, you’re likely to find a critter or two, but we don’t go looking for them. We stay near the ocean with the sea breezes. But then comes spring. The arrival of spring in south Florida brings “spring break” and that’s when you notice the first few big black flies coming through the porthole. It’s a sign that it’s time to begin heading north to experience the full bug latitude experience.

In Central Florida we start getting the love bugs. I don’t care how much fun and/or sex they’re having, I just wish they wouldn’t have it on my boat. They fly about and land in twos, as you might have figured. Occasionally there’s a threesome but I think that’s due to a mid air collision when they’re distracted and not looking where they’re going. Sometimes the boat is swarming with love bugs. If you drive a car when the love bugs are swarming their carcasses will cover the windshield, but thankfully “Chez Nous” doesn’t go that fast. I guess that’s why we see all the go fast boats up on the banks. I can see their insurance claim forms clearly in my mind. “Oh, I wasn’t negligent. I wasn’t failing to exercise prudent seamanship. I just couldn’t see because of the (insert 7 letter word) bugs splattered all over my windshield.”

About No See-ums

1. Some call them “sand gnats,” some call them “sand flies,” many call them other things I can’t say here.

2. Whatever you call them, No See-ums will fly right through your screens and drive you nuts.

By the time we get to North Florida the no-seeums start oozing out of the marshes and filtering through the screens. They’re close to being the worst kind of bugs in the world, in my book. They don’t stop biting until after the marshes of Georgia. If we waited around in South Carolina for the summer, we’d find them there too, but we don’t wait. We want diversity in our bug population.

While in Georgia we pick up vicious green eyed horse flies. They sting and bite and you can kill them all day long without making a dent in their population swarming in your cockpit. I’ve tried all sorts of experiments. Sometimes I’ve piled the dead ones up in a corner, thinking their survivors would get the hint. Big mistake. Sometimes I’ve swept all the dead ones down the scupper thinking the live cannibals would follow. Not interested.

These are really dandy cruising latitude critters. They males aren’t so bad, and you probably won’t have any problem with them. I understand that they drink nectar and are relatively nice. And they have very short lives. Go figure. It’s the females that get you. They’re the ones who like to go out and bite big mammals (like you and me). They like to bite the neck the best (like vampires). And also like vampires, they live a long time—for flies—from spring until fall.

By the time we get to the Carolinas it’s getting warmer and the mosquitoes start swarming out of the marshes in the evenings and early mornings. They don’t just bite. When I go up to the bow at first light to pull up the anchor they crash land against my body like pellets from a BB gun. Sometimes they hit so hard they almost knock me off my feet. And then they start biting. Of course I instinctively slap at them with both hands which are at that point covered with mud from the anchor chain. By the time the anchor’s up they can’t find their way through the mud to bite me and I slide back to the cockpit covered with pock marked mud from all their crash landings.

Fly Gun Ready to Fire
In North Carolina we found another interesting bug. One night we went to sleep, quite innocently, in a quiet cove in the North River, to the north of Albemarle Sound. We heard a lot of buzzing all night long, but figured it was a particularly virulent bunch of mosquitoes and dreamed on through the night grateful for our screens. When we woke the next morning we were really grateful for our screens.

The entire boat, every inch of its surface, was covered with green specs that would NOT come off. And these green specs were not particularly pleasant. Trying to touch as few of them as possible, we made it to a marina. “Oh, that’s wheat lice,” we were cheerfully told. “We get them sometimes around here about this time of the year. They swarm and they do them little droppings all over everywhere.” It took us several hours to wash off the washable part of “them little droppings.” It took days for the sun to bleach off the non washable green part which had morphed into the gel coat and fabric of our bimini.

By the time we reach the Chesapeake Bay the bugs are out in their full glory for the summer season. They are too numerous to mention, so I’ll only mention a few of the more numerous ones. Like the flies on a westerly wind. You can be sailing along in the middle of the Bay with many miles of water between you and the mainland and the flies will come out on that wind and bee line for your boat. They’ve ridden on the wind, they’ve decided they shouldn’t have done that, they’re looking for a place to land, and you’re it. There’s nothing you can do because they keep coming. You’d think you’d see them coming in swarms based on the swarms that are buzzing around your boat, but you don’t. They just keep showing up aboard, no matter how many you kill. They have a mission. They don’t merely want to bite; they want to not go swimming. The best thing to do, we’ve found, is to take advantage of the situation and have a little fun with fly swatter guns. If you have a gun for each crewmember you can keep score and give a prize at the end of the day—like a shower in a bottle of cold vodka.

There’s another far more menacing bug problem in the Chesapeake in the summer. It’s the Praying Mantis. They always seem to land on my boat. And they can make a mess like most bugs. But there’s this big issue with Praying Mantises. How do you flick off a bug that’s praying? I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been a little superstitious. I figure that when I’ve been wracking up points for Hell by killing bugs the whole way up the coast, the last thing I need to do is knock off a bug that’s praying. I’ve been told by some very intelligent people who know better that I’m taking this a little too far, but you’ve got to be careful out here. So I generally let the Praying Mantises alone. Besides, someone told me that they eat certain other bugs and this could definitely be a beneficial thing.

Now I know there’s a lot of east coast to the north of the Chesapeake Bay. We’ve found plenty of bugs up in those parts too, but there don’t seem to be quite as many, particularly as you gain the more northern latitudes. Besides, I’m ready to stop writing about this. The more I think about it the more I itch. And the more I itch the more I think I’d rather jump overboard and start swimming. And we’re in South Carolina. And there are gators down in that water.

Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale