How Deer Flies Really Got Their Name

Photo by Tobias Roth on Unsplash

When I was sixteen, my parents decided to send their angry teenager on a little adventure called Outward Bound. Three weeks in the Boundary Waters canoe area in Northern Minnesota and Southern Canada, canoeing, portaging, hiking, sleeping outside, eating flapjacks and gorp, and being attacked by insanely huge and hostile insects. The counselors, who were allegedly there to guide and help us, were bullies, gleefully making fun of the less outdoorsy among us. It was one of the worst experiences of my life.

This trek into the wilderness introduced me to leeches, mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds, and deer flies. For those of you lucky enough to have avoided deer flies during your life, let me explain. Think of an ordinary housefly. Now, take that housefly and, using a magic wand, hit it with Engorgio, the spell from Harry Potter that makes things grow larger. Hit it again until you have a fly roughly the size of your thumb. Make it really pissed off and give it fangs. Congratulations, you have a deer fly. Which is not to be confused with a horse fly-a fly the size of a horse.

Remember “The In-Laws” with Peter Falk and Alan Arkin? The scene where Falk is reminiscing about his CIA adventures? He regales his audience with a particularly thrilling tale about giant tse tse flies that carry off small children while the villagers run behind the flies, waving hand-made brooms. I believe this scene is based on actual events, except instead of tse tse flies, the original insects were deer flies.

My husband has tried to give me the “scientific” reason for the name “deer flies.” Something about the flies really loving to bite and suck the blood from deer. No. It’s because, left unfettered, they would grow to be the size of a deer. I mean, this is a fly that if you attempt to kill it with a fly swatter, will grab the swatter with its claws, throw it on the ground, and growl at you. You need a bazooka to kill a deer fly.

I honestly believed my experience with deer flies would be the end of my contact with giant insects. Then I moved to Florida. Holy shit. Now I got to run, screaming, from mosquitoes the size of eagles, and something called a Palmetto bug. That is a misnomer. Palmetto makes it sound sort of cute, like a jewel beetle. It’s actually a gargantuan cockroach.

Giant Florida cockroaches make deer flies look petite. I’ve seen cockroaches 5 inches long. Which is disgusting and wrong. Many experts (okay, me) are of the opinion that wall mounts for televisions started gaining popularity in Florida because these monsters were carrying off table top televisions at an alarming rate. You always hear of some hapless poodle or other small dog being devoured by an alligator while wandering near a body of water. What many people won’t tell you is quite a few of these pooches were actually taken by cockroaches. For some reason, it’s much easier to believe a giant, scaly water beast lobbed itself onto a lawn, snatched Fluffy, and disappeared into the murky depths than the TRUTH: these dogs are victims of giant, carnivorous Florida cockroaches.

Vermont seemed safe. Yes, Vermont has wildlife (bears, mountain lions, skunks, avid bicyclists) but you can avoid them. What no one told me is that Vermont also has huge spiders. Known as fox spiders, these large, scary creatures loved our house. My son and husband captured one, and put it in a jar with some grass. I came upstairs from the basement and was greeted by our son, who waved this jar in my face as I screamed and fell down. My one and only close encounter with a non-enclosed fox spider came at an incredibly inconvenient moment: I was peeing. We had a tiny bathroom downstairs, and as I sat down, I noticed a 3-inch fox spider on the wall across from me.

My husband and others have sworn fox spiders do not leap majestically into the air and attack people’s faces, but I don’t believe them. I sat there, unable to move, breathe or, of course, pee. I knew that thing was going to eat my face off, and there I was, pants around my ankles, no bazooka in sight. Finally, some of the terror ebbed, and I was able to finish my business. Grabbing about 65 tissues, I slowly stood. The spider was staring at me, eyes narrowed, almost daring me to try and kill it. I held my breath and jumped, smashing the 65 tissues into the spider as hard as I could. There was a loud crunch, a squishing noise and then nothing. I kept pushing; there was no way in hell I was moving until I knew that thing was dead.

I’m sure animal rights activists are incensed at me right now, shaking their heads, and saying “Erin, you could have gently gathered it up in your hands and taken it back outside.” Screw that. You put me in a room with a giant, poodle-eating cockroach, a childnapping deer fly, or a face eating spider, and only one of us is leaving alive. Hopefully, it’s me.

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