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Andrea Malik applies a BTI treatment by a beaver dam in Colton. Black fly eggs need running water to hatch, so they're an easy target. Photo: David Sommerstein
Andrea Malik applies a BTI treatment by a beaver dam in Colton. Black fly eggs need running water to hatch, so they're an easy target. Photo: David Sommerstein

Hate black flies? Hug this woman.

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It's one of the cruelest fates dealt the North Country. The snow's gone. The warm sun's finally back. And just when we're dying to bask in spring, the black flies begin to swarm.

A couple dozen towns in the North Country try to take a stand. They treat thousands of miles of streams to kill the nasty, biting bugs. It's all done by hand, dozens of people slogging miles through the deep woods to deliver a bacteria that's fatal to black flies: Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis, or BTI.

One woman in St. Lawrence County has dedicated almost 30 years of her life to battling the black fly. David Sommerstein profiled her in 2007.

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David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

***

Andrea Malik's day starts at 8 in the morning in a Colton town building. She and her staff slip on rubber boots and rain gear and load backpacks. They consult three big charts on the wall, a list of Colton's 200 streams, a couple of which Andrea named herself.

"You get desperate. I have to name all these brooks. Now there's a section from The Jungle Book characters - Bagheera, Balu, Shirkan, you just have to name them because they're just unnamed teeny brooks."

Andrea Malik charts out her crew's territories for the day. Photo: David Sommerstein
Andrea Malik charts out her crew's territories for the day. Photo: David Sommerstein
Andrea's crew includes her right-hand man, David Hyde of Higley Flow, a retired Reynolds worker. He's in his early 70s, but looks more 50. "One of the main reasons I do it is for the exercise," says Hyde.

There's 19-year-old rookie Mark Phillips of Norwood. And Helen Creedow, who left a desk job in Rochester to spend a season trudging through Colton's deepest woods, who says the black fly program is like boot camp, "getting so you can use your body like armor and push yourself through the woods and the underbrush, and kind of getting used to that."

Andrea's the boss. She's 5'3", but her reputation's much bigger. Her nicknames include "Wild Wolf", "Crazy Wolf", and "The Black Fly Diva." When I comment she must have strong calves from so much hiking, she answers, "I'm strong everywhere."

After the group splits off to cover their zones for the day, Andrea, Jasper, her husky-shepherd mix, and I get dropped off at Little Cold Brook, about a mile from where it meets the Raquette River. It's 40 degrees out and it's lightly drizzling. A chilling drizzle, I might add.

"I guess it's nice if you're a beaver or an otter," says Andrea, "but if you have the right gear, it's not bad, and really it's your attitude."

Andrea Malik mixes BTI (Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis) with water as she prepares to treat streams and brooks. Photo: David Sommerstein
Andrea Malik mixes BTI (Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis) with water as she prepares to treat streams and brooks. Photo: David Sommerstein
I'm game. I want to learn how you try to kill all the black flies in the town of Colton. We hike a logging road to a wide beaver marsh. A bittern floats over the water.

Andrea scrambles over to the beaver dam. "I haven't checked this yet this season, but that would be a very good spot for larvae." She throws down her 40-pound pack and returns with an inch-long worm squirming on the tip of her finger. "That's a black fly larvae right there."

Those itchy, oozy bites you hate? They start right here. Andrea points with the sharp end of a stick. "I don't know if you can see these fans or mouth brushes they use to collect food."

Black flies are a surprisingly easy target if you catch them at the right time. They spawn only in moving water, because they rely on the current to bring them food. But it can also bring them a bacteria called BTI.

Andrea carefully measures out a dose of BTI into a sprayer bottle, based on stream flow, water temperature, and distance to the next treatment. It looks like chocolate milk and smells like ovaltine. She adds water, then sprays the chemical across the brook from a pressurized sprayer.

Andrea, 40-pound pack and all, balances nimbly on the beaver dam and sprays BTI upstream. I muddle behind, slashing through a thicket of tag alders.

About BTI: Some call it the perfect pesticide. It's organic, dilutes quickly, and after decades of study and use, it's been shown to kill, almost exclusively, black flies (check out this interview with New York State's leading expert on BTI.)

We reach the far shore and the going's easier. According to the plan, it's 150 paces to the next treatment site. You count even if you fall. "A roll counts as three paces," Andrea says. It's hard to say if she's joking.

Andrea motors over rocks, sidesteps holes, moving like a running back. Jasper trots ahead. I labor to keep up. We start a couple of grouse.

After a while, we take a break. Andrea sits amidst the tawny grasses of last summer to mix another batch of BTI. She pauses to show me her owl call. It's amazingly convincing. "Yeah, I've called them in. They come to check me out. It's pretty cool. The coyotes answer me too."

After Andrea's equally convincing coyote call, Jasper gets into it too. The pair of them are howling in this wide, soaking marsh. Call of the wild, indeed.

It's kind of hard to make sense of this. A woman so clearly in love with the natural world, dedicating her life to killing a fly, just because it's a nuisance. But Andrea says the BTI program is an alternative. It replaced aerial spraying of dangerous chemicals in the '60s and '70s. "People want the black flies controlled, and this is the best method. And I love being out here. I love seeing the wildlife, and having my best friend with me, Jasper."

"The Slide" portion of Little Cold Brook in Colton. When was the last time anyone not treating streams with BTI walked through here? Photo: David Sommerstein
"The Slide" portion of Little Cold Brook in Colton. When was the last time anyone not treating streams with BTI walked through here? Photo: David Sommerstein
Andrea says the program has also helped the people who have worked with her. "Often they're unemployed, and in tough places in their life, and I think the opportunity to be out in nature has been healing for a lot of them, and I kind of like doing that too for them."

You can see how this job can be therapeutic, as grueling as it is. We slog through a misty, muddy clearing to a steep section Andrea calls The Slide. Little Cold brook cascades through the bare woods, moss and young ferns flashing green in the otherwise brown landscape.

It's gorgeous. Aside from Andrea or her crew, when was the last time a human being was in here?

Our last BTI application of the day. I ask Andrea what would have happen if we did nothing? "We'd have black flies flying around," she answers quickly. "But there are black flies flying around," I counter.

Andrea doesn't skip a beat. "Not in Colton. Have you come to Colton during the black fly season? I mean, there always will be a few around because this is black fly control, but I run a pretty tight program and we have very few flies." This on a $51,000 annual budget.

I'm still a little skeptical. I mean, I live in the next town over, in Pierrepont. Our yard swarms with black flies. "Oh, yeah, you're in Pierrepont," Andrea chortles. "Come to Colton and you'll see the difference. Absolutely."

I ask Andrea if she's a folk hero in Colton. She answers modestly. She's appreciated, she says. Then she jokes, "maybe when I'm gone, they can build a statue." Or is she joking?

I can picture it. Andrea Malik, cast in granite, riding a giant black fly, with a whip in her hand, with the inscription: "The Black Fly Diva of Colton."

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