State coordinator says spray used in area black fly control program is non-toxic
Between April and October every year the West Virginia Department of Agriculture regularly applies a bacterial agent into area rivers, part of their annual black fly control program.
Betsy Reeder has been the coordinator for the black fly control program for about 7 years now. She said the black fly larvae in the rivers are the target, and the water temperature determines when they start spraying every year.
“When the water is cold they’re developing slowly so we can spread the sprays out maybe two weeks, two and a half weeks apart,” explains Reeder. “But then when the water is warm, we have to spray just about every week.”
She said the program started back in 1986.
“A lot of people were suffering,” Reeder says. “Apparently, I wasn’t here then, but apparently the numbers of black flies were just outrageous. And people told me that kids couldn’t play outside, and you could hardly stand to mow your grass, and play golf. Outdoor activities were just really hampered. There was a big controversy in the 80s over starting the program but it’s got a lot of support, and I think the support has grown over the years.”
Reeder joked that they’re not out to kill every last black fly in southern West Virginia.
“It’s not an eradication effort, but a suppression effort,” she says. “There will always be black flies, and people refer to them as gnats, which is the same thing, and they’re always going to be with us. They’re breeding in the smaller streams that we don’t treat, and they’re really part of our eco-system. They’re food for birds and the larvae are food for various aquatic invertebrates and fish. So, they have their role to play, but we want to have a quality of life here, too. So, it’s a balancing act.”
She said helicopters are used in the suppression program.
“Helicopters are dropping a product called VectoBac into the water,” says Reeder. “It’s a bacterial suspension, and bacteria kill the black fly larvae but they don’t affect the fish or the mayflies or anything else in the rivers. It’s kind of amazing to me how effective it is. In fact, this morning I was in the Greenbrier River and all the larvae I collected were already dead from the spray yesterday. So, it’s amazingly effective.”
Reeder said there’s no reason to be concerned about any weird side effects in fish or aquatic life from the spraying.
“It’s non-toxic,” she says. “The agent that does the killing of the larvae is a bacteria and it’s got a long Latin name, and it’s been in use for a long, long time. It’s very well known and well studied. And they put in some fish oil, is what it smells like, kind of a smelly fish oil smell, and soy beans and corn. That’s to feed the bacteria while they’re multiplying. And then, there’s stuff in there that helps with the proper suspension, so that it doesn’t sink too quickly or it doesn’t float on the surface of the water. But it’s been in use for a long time. It’s considered to be very safe.”
Her office does get phone calls once in a while from folks who were sprayed inadvertently.
“Boaters are pretty easy to see,” Reeder says. “But fisherman standing under overhanging trees are hard to see. So every once in a while we’ll have an incident where somebody gets some of the spray on them, and it’s very alarming if you don’t know what it is.”
Despite being non-toxic, Reeder suggests rinsing the spray off if you come in contact with it.
“It is recommended that you wash it off,” Reeder says. “It’s got something in it that’s an irritant to the skin. It’s not going to cause cancer or lesions or anything like that, but it is recommended that you wash it off.”
Reeder cautioned for anglers to be on the lookout for the helicopters, and to try and make every effort to be visible to the pilots.
“If anybody does see the helicopter approaching, they can either get out of the river or else step out from under overhanging branches,” she says. “And make sure, just wave their hands and arms and make sure the pilot sees them, because they don’t want to spray anybody.”