The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


May 1, 2014

Bug off, gnats

It’s been 28 years since the battle was won to help curb the scourge of biting, annoying, swarming black flies.

Before the state started spraying the fly larvae in the New, Bluestone and Greenbrier rivers in 1986, outdoor activities were accompanied by what was known as “the Beckley wave” and little children and adults alike found themselves covered in nasty welts from the bites of the adult flies, also known as gnats.

Now the fly-less nirvana is endangered — at least until July.

The spray fund, overseen by the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, was nearly depleted as officials tried to stay ahead of the creatures last season. Heavy late spring and early summer rain led to increased applications as the Bti washed downstream.

One application has been made so far this spring and only $60,000 remains, just enough for one more dose until the end of the fiscal year June 30.

The department hopes to coax a $300,000 budget supplement out of this month’s legislative special session to keep the spraying active.

This is a crucial time in the control of the flies, it was written in a The Register-Herald special section published during the height of the fight to bring a solution. In that section, West Virginia University entomologist Dr. James Amrine said, “The first generation of flies that hatch in early spring stay close to the river. The second major batch hatches mid-May and by June we’ll have the full impact of the black fly.”

If the supplement is not forthcoming, we all will bear the full brunt of what Amrine termed “nothing short of a monster.”

While making the outdoors safe for children’s play, gardening, leisure and other activities, there is another reason to keep black flies at bay — tourism.

Much has changed on that front since this battle began back in the early 1980s. Thousands of people now enjoy the many activities in the New River Gorge, but it’s hard to hold on to the rock you’re climbing if you’re swatting at gnats at the same time.

Golf, picnics in the park, hiking, biking, whitewater — all of the things draw people to visit southern West Virginia — have increased many times over since the Bti was first dropped in 1986. Consequently, it might be hard to calculate the full monetary impact of lost tourism dollars if black flies invade again.

Here is what must happen to leverage the supplemental funding: Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick must explain to Gov. Tomblin what is at stake and implore him to add the request to the special session call.

Once that is done, local lawmakers must fully realize the importance of this issue and make sure fellow legislators are clued in about the problems that will ensue if there is only one application between now and the end of June.

In 1989, three years into the spraying program, The Register-Herald asked southern West Virginians their opinions about spraying the rivers to control the flies.

The majority seemed ecstatic that the flies were gone.

One Hinton resident wrote, “Before spraying, all outdoor work and pleasure was terrible because of having to beat the pesky flies out of our faces. Since spraying, it is a joy to be outside. That’s the way it should be.”

Yes, that is the way it should be.

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