Shown here are biting snipe flies on the face of a sedated mountain goat, Kenai Mountains, July 13. At the same time the flies were attacking the attendant biologists in comparable numbers. (Photo by Dom Watts/USFWS)

Shown here are biting snipe flies on the face of a sedated mountain goat, Kenai Mountains, July 13. At the same time the flies were attacking the attendant biologists in comparable numbers. (Photo by Dom Watts/USFWS)

Refuge Notebook: The bad biter par excellence

On a glorious, sunny day years ago after biking up the Resurrection Pass Trail to Juneau Lake, my companion and I paused to enjoy the spectacular alpine view and cool breeze by the water. The initial tranquility was brief. Within minutes, tens of flies the size of house flies landed on us and, with little delay, bit. These were unlike sneaky mosquitoes or black flies that can often take a blood meal without being detected; these things hurt!

Our encounter was not unique. A friend recently sent me a text regarding an experience in the Kenai Mountains asking, “What are those biting flies up in the alpine? … Looks like a regular ol’ fly but bite like hell.”

We had become acquainted with the Kenai Peninsula’s least famous biting flies, known by the names of biting snipe flies, blood-sucking snipe flies, Rocky Mountain biting flies, and other names not suitable for printing in the newspaper.

Biting snipe flies can be found in parts of Europe and Asia, but this group is most diverse in western North America, where they live in montane and coastal meadows. On the Kenai they are encountered almost exclusively in wet alpine or subalpine areas. The adults usually appear only for a few weeks in mid to late summer.

Females readily take blood from humans, dogs, livestock, and game animals. They have been described in entomological literature as “vicious biters” with bites that are “rather painful” to “savage.” Even among other biting snipe flies, the species commonly encountered in the Kenai Mountains was described by entomologist John Aldrich in his 1915 review of North American biting snipe flies as “the bad biter par excellence.”

Biting snipe flies alight unobtrusively on people and may crawl under clothes before biting. When numerous, these flies can form audible “following swarms” around potential hosts, which may be the reason for their scientific name of Symphoromyia, which means “accompanying flies.”

Their combined behaviors of persistent harassment, crawling on skin, and painful bites have been known to cause panic in some people, even in entomological researchers. During a study of snipe flies in Alberta, one observer, “draped an insect net over his head, slapped frantically at the assembled flies, and finally had to leave the observation area.”

Reactions to snipe fly bites vary, ranging from no reaction to more severe inflammation, even leading to hospitalization in one documented case. In general, their bites are painful and may persist for days. In my personal experience in the Kenai Mountains, the initial bites were keenly painful, but I did not experience any lasting inflammation or itching.

As with other flies that take multiple blood meals, it is conceivable that biting snipe flies could carry pathogens from animals to humans or among people, but no case of disease transmission by these flies has been documented to date.

When pursuing horses, cattle, goats, and deer, a female snipe fly generally does not buzz around, instead landing directly on the host’s head without delay. Feeding is concentrated on the face and ears, with most bites taking place on the bridge of the nose. Developing antlers of male deer are also a favored feeding site. By angling their bodies upwards when feeding, snipe flies are able to get past the dense guard hairs of their hosts in areas where other biting flies have difficulty.

When attacks are severe on mule deer, bare spots may appear on face and ears. The deer respond to biting snipe flies by ear flicking and sometimes wiping the flies off of their faces, but the flies do not appear to stress them greatly. Interactions of biting snipe flies with other wildlife species have not been well studied.

Male biting snipe flies do not take blood. They aggregate in swarms to which the females come to mate.

Habits of the larvae of Symphoromyia are poorly known. The slow-moving maggots live in damp soil where they are at least partly predaceous. In a laboratory setting, Alaskan biting snipe fly larvae fed on other fly larvae and were even cannibalistic, piercing their prey and feeding on the innards.

Very little research has been done on ways to control or cope with biting snipe flies, perhaps because they are usually encountered only locally, the females are active for only a short time, and they are not known to transmit disease. For example, I could find no information on effectiveness of insect repellants for thwarting their attacks.

If you find yourself being hounded by biting snipe flies, I recommend following my example. When my friend and I were attacked at Trout Lake, we hopped back on our bikes, soon leaving those pestiferous flies in our dust. As vicious, painful, and often cursed as they may be, I am thankful that our biting snipe flies tend to be a passing nuisance that can usually be left behind.

Matt Bowser serves as Entomologist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. You can find more information at http://www.fws.gov/refuge/kenai/ or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.

More in Life

Victoria Petersen / Peninsula Clarion
Chicken adobo simmers on the stove Monday in Anchorage.
Kalifornsky Kitchen: A dish all its own

Conjuring the Philippines with chicken adobo

Bunnell Street Arts Center Artist in Residence Nina Elder’s work is displayed on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021, at the gallery in Homer, Alaska. At left are pieces from her series, “It Will Not Be the Same, But It Might Be Beautiful,” drawings of puzzle stones collected in the area near McCarthy, Alaska. At right is a drawing of frayed rope, part of her focus during her residency. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)
Visiting artist acknowledges ‘the brokenness but not throwing it away when it’s broken’

For Bunnell residency, artist also will look at frayed, found objects like rope and nets

A typical pesto pasta night at our house, Dec. 26, 2020, in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)
Kalfironsky Kitchen: A fresh start with pesto

It’s bright. It’s green. It’s fresh. It’s cheesy. What’s not to love?

Virginia Walters (Courtesy photo)
Life in the Pedestrian Lane: Gone to the Dogs

Our first family dog was a shepherd sized mutt named Timber.

Image courtesy Clark Fair 
In 1920, two years after the killings in Kenai, William Dawson had a new business partner, Emil Berg. When they witnessed this bill of sale, both men signed their names to the document.
Exerting control in Old Kenai — Part 7

This is the seventh and final installment in a series about two killings that occurred in Kenai on April 8, 1918.

File
Minister’s Message: Finding peace outdoors in winter

I am a self-proclaimed “summer baby.”

Getting my ingredients ready for blueberry crumble, where the berries can be prepared right in the pan and the topping in a small bowl, on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021, in Anchorage, Alaska (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)
Kalifornsky Kitchen: Something nice

It feels like the right time to make some of my grandma’s blueberry crumble.

Nick Varney
Unhinged Alaska: The Poe-etic potholes return

Well, 2021 has started off a bit shaky, especially weatherwise. Even though,… Continue reading

Part of the grave marker for Cleveland L. Magill. (Photo courtesy Clark Fair)
Exerting control in Old Kenai — Part 6

The sixth installment in a series about two killings that occurred in Kenai on April 8, 1918.

File
Minister’s Message: Love takes work

Love is more than a feeling or a one-day experience.

A Greek and Moroccan-inspired grain bowl made with elements of my favorite foods and flavors, photgraphed on Feb. 3, 2021, in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)
Kalifornsky Kitchen: Grain bowl goodness

I’m thinking about food as an expression of myself and an opportunity to experiment in the kitchen.

This headline about the killings in Kenai appeared in the Cordova Daily Times four days after the incident.
Exerting control in Old Kenai — Part 5

The fifth installment in a series about two killings that occurred in Kenai on April 8, 1918