The Fish Story

While Greenhead ‘Black Boxes’ Come Under Eco-Fire, They Have No Problem Keeping the Generations Coming

By JAY MANN | Aug 17, 2016
Photo by: Ryan Morrill A greened fly trap in Holgate.

Not long ago, I got word that LBI’s fairly-famed greenhead-trapping “black boxes” were under eco-attack. Scuttlebutt had some unknown insect-hugging sector of society talking smack about the fly-attracting contraptions, which are doomsday hotels to horseflies, like our greenies, Tabanus nigrovittatus.

As nearly as I heard the hearsay, the black fly-trapping, table-looking contrivances were being seen as ecologically sinful. Some spontaneous ecology oversight committee has begun siding with the greenheads, defining the notorious blood-seeking/sucking insects as an indispensable part of the food chain, i.e. something to be cherished and protected, not blacked out. By its silence on the matter, even PETA is seemingly distancing itself from this one.

Worse yet, I was told that some threatening letters have been sent, warning all boxes must be removed – or else. I picture those letters being sent to addresses like: “Black Box 311, Parking Lot, Holgate, N.J. 08008.”

“Yo, buddy. Yeah, you … in the black socks and flip-flops. I’m over here. Black Box 311.”

“Uh, yes, Black Box 311?”

“I got a bit of a problem here. I received this registered mail, and, well, I got four legs but no arms or hands. I was wondering if you might give a friendly black box a hand by opening it … and maybe reading it to me.”

“Sure. Let’s see, it says ‘Mr. or Mrs. Black Box 311, We regret to inform you … Oh, you’re not gonna like the rest of this.’”

Upon word of our black boxes being harassed, a SandPaper writer put out feelers seeking more info. Finding exact details was tougher than swatting a Tabanus nigrovittatus out of midair – instead of strategically waiting for it to land first, then slowly moving your cupped hand over it and … splat!

GREENHEAD DATA-SEEKING: This whole Box 311 thing kicked me in the weirdness bone, which is a lot like the funny bone, but instead of laughing, you just stand there looking around, all “Is anyone else seeing this?”

So, for stares and chuckles, I decided to run with the “Save the Greenheads” eco angle by technically agreeing that flies are nutrition on the wing for everything from birds to bats to dragonflies and beyond. Considering a greenhead fly is among the largest of flies, a couple/few would make the day for, say, an LBI toad. So, might a box-building humanity be blacking out meals-on-wheels/wings for local wildlife?

On that winged and weird premise, I sought info on the current health and welfare of the greenhead population, admittedly in a highly prejudiced state of mind. I hate greenheads with an allergic passion. Even a glancing blow by one of those bloodsucking wenches sends me on a third-degree scratch mission. Hell, I have ’60s-era scars from greenhead bites past, the worst ones harkening back to attacks on my exposed arm, draped over an inner tube, while clamming the bay.

As is the norm with nature, there is far more to the greenhead fly story than meets the cupped hand. Turns out the greenhead fly has a built-in get-even mechanism for those smashing them to kingdom come. I’ll explain.

We all experience a sordid sense of helping the entire world when crushing a greenhead – then stomping it into the ground in an effort to make it somehow deader than dead. Well, you might want to go light on the self-congratulatory back pats. From horsefly heaven, the bug gets the last laugh – one that comes back to bite us.

To understand this, ponder the fascinatingly complex lifecycle of a greenhead. We’ll start at the eggy beginning, when preggie lady greenheads lay 100 to 200 eggs. How they got pregnant is very important – but you have to read farther down for the racy stuff.

The eggs are carefully laid in marsh vegetation. In short order, the eggs develop into grub-ish larvae. These flies-to-be hit the mud, hanging out in tidal vegetation zones, dampened by daily high tides.

It’s during larval times that the first ravenous phase of the fly’s life rears up. Foraging in the muck zone, they binge eat like there’s no tomorrow, devouring any reachable morsel, including its own kind. It’s that initial indefatigable fattening process that sends us regrets. Read on.

The soon obese larvae bury themselves for the winter, during which virtually none of their hard-earned fat is lost. They unknowingly know that the fat holds species perpetuation.

After wiggling forth in spring, the larvae waste no time forming into pupae, feeding a bit more in the process. Then comes the emergence of the notorious green-eyed fly phase.

Fat as pigs, the emergent adult female fly is, of all unlikely things, a vegetarian, using her juicy girlish fly figure to woo emergent greenhead males, vegetarians themselves. Now comes the X-rated part. Within days of adulthood, the flies conjoin in the name of egg-making. Their energy and impregnation success would make a rabbit blush.

After a very short in-the-oven time, the lady flies unload their egg mass.

If you’ve been keeping track, you’ll notice the adult greenhead fly has secured the next generation with nary a drip of our blood. But a sanguine phase is on the way, riding in upon the next west wind.

Before stretch marks have even begun to recede, the females go on a wholly reckless search for blood. Yep, they’re shooting for a second pregnancy. The odd part is, to use a regional expression, they’re playing with casino money. The greenheads that come after us like bug-eyed kamikazes have the luxury of knowing they’ve already perpetuated the species, via more eggs than you can shake a stick at. Blood dining on the likes of humans is, well, dessert.

Now that I’ve smashed any sense that crushing a greenhead somehow contributes to the lessening of the species, I want to go back to those suspected condemnations of black boxes.

I can scientifically assure that the uncanny reproduction ability of greenheads negates any chance of the current smattering of black box doing a dadburn thing to the overall well-being of horsehead hordes. In fact, studies show the entire marshland realm is crawling with greenhead eggs, larvae and pupae. Our birds, bats, dragonflies and toads can easily live in harmony with black boxes.

And do black boxes work? Rutgers researchers think so. In a Rutgers University Department of Entomology article titled “The Greenhead and You” by Elton Hansens and Stuart Race, the school notes box traps were actually developed by the university to measure fly populations. They worked remarkably well.

“The traps capture large numbers of blood-seeking flies and if such traps are located at the edge of a marsh or in adjacent uplands where flies concentrate, they serve as a partial control for greenheads. … Where single traps capture hundreds of flies per day, a marked reduction in greenhead annoyance results,” reads the article.

“We are confident that such traps will capture flies in numbers great enough to decrease the salt marsh greenhead problem in local areas. What we don’t know is whether or not the continual removal of large numbers of these flies over several seasons will reduce the size of the total fly population.”

Along those “total fly population” lines, the university is big on an even greater presence and placement of traps. “We are encouraging all interested coastal dwellers to build and maintain one or more of these simple trapping devices.”

And just imagine if we nearly black-box greenheads out of existence and the government declares them endangered and even brushing one away too meanly could lead to a hefty fine – and soon all LBI beaches are annually closed for the summer to ensure the return of the suddenly rare and wondrous greenhead fly.

OK, where do I sign up for this anti-black box coalition?

PAIN IN THE EELGRASS: Throughout the summer and fall, we often get eelgrassed under due to northeast winds. But why does eelgrass come in on those winds? By my theorizing, it has to do with the more radical tides that come with these winds. The NE tides increase ocean water flow to and from the bay.

But how do tons of eelgrass fit into the flow? Along with a natural process whereby summer eelgrass beds shed older blades, boats weed-whack eelgrass beds with their props. It’s an unwanted shave, to be sure. Eelgrass beds are the farmlands of the bay, growing enough life to feed anglers with bait and gamefish for a lifetime.

The fresh, green eelgrass blades seen, summer long, floating on the bay surface have most likely gotten there through prop trauma. Darker grass blades are either seedy sheds or, more often, dead grass stirred off the bottom by boat action.

The more props spinning madly in the bay, the larger the resultant mats of bay-top eelgrass floating about. The mats eventually form conga lines across the entire bay, much to the dismay of passing-through mariners, who soon hear the whine of engine overheat alarms – demanding a full stop, or a reverse, to clean out clogged intakes.

Now, let’s cycle the free-floating eelgrass back into the northeast winds, which blow more ocean water into the bay than any other wind direction. After just one day of brisk NE winds, the bay waters rise, especially in backbay areas – a zone often loaded with floatables, like grasses and trashes. The northeast wind becomes part of a natural purgative stratagem. The heightened high tides lift bayside floatables upward, then equal and opposite outgoing tides carry floatables into the ocean, via inlets.

Standing on the Barnegat Jetty during an outgoing northeast-wind tide, it’s easy to see an overload of ocean bound eelgrass cruising through the inlet – not a favorite sight for those fishing off the rocks, as their lines get weighed down by grass gobs.

In a single outgoing tide, weeks of accumulated free-floating bay eelgrass can be transported through Barnegat Inlet, famed for its powerful outgoing currents.

OK, but none of that fully explains why LBI beaches become the repository points for tons atop tons of free-flowing eelgrass. Reenter the northeast wind, which becomes an oceanic grass pusher.

Once out the Barnegat Inlet, the surface-sitting eelgrass takes a windblown ride southwestward. In only a matter of NE-wind hours, the former bay’s grasses relocate on the beach. It often creates a snaking eelgrass line along all 20-plus miles of LBI beachfront.

This natural bay-to-beach eelgrass transport process is as old as the hills. While the grass arrival is the bane of modern public works crews – who need to keep beaches NBS (nothing but sand) – beached eelgrass was very well-received in olden times. It was profitably collected, to be sold as filling for the likes of car seats. It was also the onetime LBI standard for garden mulch. While it remains as weed-impenetrable as any upper-end mulch out there today, such a garden variety usage would be seen as uncouth.

Gospel truth: In yet another harebrained get-rich idea, I once ground dried eelgrass and made a tea from it. Hideous! Hell, it curdled the sugar. That stuff could be the fountain of youth, but after just one taste, folks would opt to simply stay old.

HOLGATE NONANSWERS – AND OPTIMISM: I’m already getting questions about Holgate reopening – mainly by beach hikers. Little doubt it will reopen to the beachcombing public on schedule, Sept. 1 or so. Nesting piping plovers have flown the coop.

As to how mobile anglers fit into the picture, i.e. how far they can drive toward the far end, is a crap shoot, based on any lingering late-nesting larger birds. Actually, that’s not totally true. They’re no longer nesting, per se, more like earning their wings as post-fledglings, or, more accurately, fly-about young.

I devised that “fly-about young” term to designate a post-nesting phase that has greatly impacted mobile angling in the past. Fly-about birds have just mastered flight but might not know enough – or be able – to lift off in the face of arriving vehicles. Of course, these late-risers are often the likes of terns and skimmers, soarers that must quickly figure out flight or crash and burn during migration.

I realize that doesn’t offer much exactness on the Holgate reopening. However, the littoral drift of nearby replenishment sand has assured a ton of sand at the entrance. Driving off and on should be a breeze, like we haven’t seen in many decades. That said, the drifting sand could become very sinky up high, should onshore winds blow it over the upper beach. But we’ve long dealt with things as sinkafied as it can get down there.

As to the summer-mysterious beach conditions farther down the far south end, an area fully off limits since April 1, I’m looking for any input from all y’all, especially boaters who have motored adjacent to there – and who know how to read that constantly morphing shoreline.

There, again, I chose my word carefully. For decades, I’ve been depicting that shoreline eroding. Now, it will be morphing, as it changes form more than eroding into nothingness.

If you’ve followed the replenishment, you know that most of LBI now entertains new sands, dredged up and pumped onto the beaches. Those acres atop acres of sand are moving south, littorally. While some sand will slide into the sea, as expected, most will go on a variable-speed side-ride, eventually being currented to Holgate.

For the imminent beach-building future, the unreplenished far south end will be fed, hopefully back to health, by nearby replen sand to the north. But, thinking long-run, the influx of material will get way meatier. A couple/few nor’easters will usher in neo-sand from the Beach Haven beachfill.

Then, the sand flow southward could get kinda crazy.

Just north of Beach Haven, the already replenished beaches from North Beach Haven to Nebraska Avenue are about to get a re-replenishment. They’ve started already. As the plover flies, that double-dip sand zone isn’t all that far from Holgate, especially when gales fly. Conceptually, our far south end could rebuild to historic dimensions – and in the not-so-distant future.

But there’s even more. When enough of the replenished beachfront sands of LBI shift southward, erosion alarms go off at the Army Corps of Engineers and all new sand is pumped upon us. You heard it here first: LBI could someday gain a southerly mile or more in length. That could take some time. Any chance of naming that Mann’s Mile? I didn’t think so.

I know that’s a lot of pounding sand on my part, but I’m an unsinkable Holgate and refuge fanatic. There’s no law (yet) that says I can’t envision both the refuge and the adjacent state-owned beaches being around for at least another generation or two. I’ll bet there’s a bevy of others willing to embrace my sand-packed south-end optimism.

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