How we Keep Deer Flies and Horse flies from biting – NO Chemicals

Building our farm has brought many unexpected challenges. It’s been dirty, difficult, dangerous and expensive. It’s easy to idealize the quaint little old fashioned farm – chickens roaming, bees humming, apples drooping – but there’s another side to that story:

For the last five years we’ve had an ongoing battle with 3 monsters. Poison ivy, horse flies, and deer flies.

We use no chemicals on our farm….but the truth is, chemicals do not help against these monsters. We’ll address our plans against poison ivy in another article. Today, we’re talking about deer flies and horse flies. You don’t need horses (or any animals!!) to have them on your property. You don’t even need water. They breed in water, for sure, but they travel up to 7 miles. And they bite and bite and bite.

The Problem with Deer Flies (and Horse Flies too….)

Deer flies and horse flies relentlessly follow humans and livestock and they bite continuously. Neither respond to chemical repellents. They tend to attack the largest/tallest and fastest moving objects. They are attracted to heat and dark colors. When they bite, they inject an anti-clotting factor that causes the wound to keep bleeding.

They are most rampant during the hottest days of summer (late June to early September.) Since we live in the cold North, this means most of our outside time is plagued by these biters.

The difference between Deer Flies and Horse Flies

Horse Fly

Horse flies are larger and mostly black. They tend to bite legs and ankles. Like deer flies, they like movement, dark colors, and heat. Horse flies will move out of their preferred areas if there are animals around to attack.

Deer Fly

Deer flies are more yellow in color and much smaller than horse flies. When you see them in the wild, their wings are usually folded down so they look almost triangle shaped. They are fast and vicious. They tend to bite on the face, head, and upper body.

Deer flies generally hang out in areas of higher “relative” humidity. We find them mostly along woodland edges and taller sections of our prairie. They are not deterred by full, open sun and they will follow you out of humid areas into full sun for hours.

How to get rid of deer flies and horse flies

First off, there is no quick fix. There are no bug zappers or chemical sprays. But there are a few helpful methods, and they fall into one of these three categories:

  • Traps
  • Barriers
  • Head Contraptions

Deer Fly and Horse Fly Traps

Only 2 types of trap work for deer flies and horse flies. They are not attracted to scent, carbon dioxide, or light so none of the traps for black flies or mosquitoes will work.

You can either buy or make a sticky trap, or you can use a black ball and net trap. There are plenty of great DIY trap plans online. There’s even one that uses mirrors and water to draw in the flies by their own movement and then drowns them. If we can find that plan, we will link it back here. (It’s lost somewhere in our file of “things to do some day.”)

We have used both the hanging sticky trap (in our case, it swung in the wind) and the netted ball trap. There are pros and cons to both.

You can easily make your own sticky trap using an old tree pot and some tanglefoot. It’s worth making a couple to get a feel for what works. You can use twine, chains, rope, old tree planting pots, old buckets, anything. Tanglefoot lasts through the rain and does a fantastic job of trapping all insects that touch it. In general, we used black, thinking the heat would draw in more flies. The key is movement and heat.

Accidents happen easily with the sticky traps though. They stick to humans and vehicles…and more than once our sticky traps found their way to the ground and became covered in sand.

They will never get ALL of the flies, and will also get the occasional butterfly or bee.

Black ball and net trap – basic design

The ball and net traps works really well, but they are expensive. You can also try to make your own (using a hula hoop, old kid’s ball and tulle netting) but it’s a lot easier to buy one. They will collect a lot of flies, and pretty much ONLY flies. You will think you got them all! But alas….it will only catch a small percentage of the flies roaming the area.

These traps are great for putting in your yard, especially if you plan to have an event. They WILL catch a large number of flies. And you will have the disgusting task of dumping out all their carcasses after a few weeks.

In our opinion, the ball and net traps work best…. and are less of a hassle. They require no maintenance other than dumping the dead flies. But they are more expensive and also draw a lot of attention. What is that orb thing? Why do you have that? Grrr…. for us, it reminds us of the deer flies. We have anger issues towards those little bastards.

Then again, it’s a one time purchase. They do what they are supposed to and they help a lot.

Deer Fly and Horse Fly Barriers

As mentioned above, horse flies will leave their preferred areas if animals are around. If you have cattle or horses, the horse flies will find them. Set up sticky traps above them or ball and net traps around the perimeter of their zone (remember the flies usually go for the tallest, fastest objects.)

Deer flies tend to stay in their “zones” unless a target enters their area and leaves. Then they will follow you for hours. They will even chase you in vehicles and can go neck and neck with you until around 55 mph. But since they stay in their zones, you can site your picnic, animal barn, or flower garden in one of areas they visit less. In our case, that means farther away from the tree lines and any lower lying areas that tend to have a bit more humidity.

We also put up screen netting on all of our doorways. Even our barn has a big netted door.

Our pole barn’s screen door, mid-construction

Deer Fly and Horse Fly Head Contraptions

Chances are, you will need to implement a wide array of defenses against deer and horse flies. It’s just part of the game. But…of all the methods talked about, we find the head contraptions to be some of the most useful for human comfort (for animals, you must put up traps and offer the animals an escape/shelter from the constant attacks.)

Let’s start off with the most crazy but super effective head contraptions:

The plastic cup on a string

Sadly we did not take any photos of us wearing the cups, but they worked great. All you need to do is buy a pack of blue solo cups and some elastic.

Cut holes in the cup to insert the elastic and make a party hat.

Make a party hat like this, woo!!! Or just buy some party hats instead of the cups.

Then cover the cup in tanglefoot. Wear the cup over a baseball cap and as you walk around, the deer flies will be attracted to the cup and they will get stuck in the tanglefoot. No flies will bother you – just the cup. This is about 90% effective. Of course, the cup can fall down and get stuck in your hair….

Or you can forget when you take it off your head and get tanglefoot all over your hands. It’s not perfect. And…it looks pretty stupid. But….it does work.

Sticky hat strips

Along the same lines, we have the sticky hat strips. These work amazing, but they can get spendy. They are one strip per hat. We found we could get 3 uses out of each strip, but that meant the hat had to be sacrificed as a deer fly hat. Alternatively, you could remove the strip each time and keep using the hat.

The good news is there is no cup to look stupid! And no cup to roll down your head and get stuck in your hair. The bad news is these are easy to forget about and it’s easy to grab up to scratch your head and get your hands in the trap.

They are plenty sticky but not enough to cause you much trouble. Also…the deer fly often die slowly on the strips. One the one hand, it sort of feels justified. And on the other, it’s a bit cruel. One of us feels obligated to constantly check the hat strips and put the dying flies out of their misery. Your experience may vary

Netted hats

Netted hats are pretty awesome for keeping insects out of your face. We use two different types.

We have a bunch of these fisherman style netted hats lying around the farm. They double as beekeeping veils for us and work great to keep all sorts of insects away from your face and neck.

They are inexpensive (we bought them on ebay,) interchangeable between people, durable, and useful for more than one purpose. The downsides – they kind of suck to see through. Not horribly, but they do distort your depth perception and cloud your vision. Also…the deer fly will never leave you. They will continue to buzz and annoy. They will land on your hat. They may still go for your shoulders and torso.

But they won’t be able to bite your head and neck. That’s worthwhile.

In the same family, we use these net bags a lot. We got these for around a dollar a piece and they are our favorite head nets. We use them while tending the bees often – because they can be carried anywhere (in your pocket, in the car, in your bee suit) and pop over a baseball cap in seconds. We seem to always be wearing a baseball hat, so this is very quick fix.

Visibility and the continual buzzing will be the same. But ease of use (and SUPER LOW COST) make these our go-to net. We buy these on ebay.

THE FREE WAY TO KEEP DEER FLIES FROM ATTACKING YOU!

We use a combination of all of the above tactics, but have also been experimenting with the traditional way to keep deer flies from biting. It’s easy, it’s free, and it actually works.

Remember how deer flies like dark colors, movement, and height?? Well, the native American’s used that knowledge to their advantage when they wore feather headdresses and painted stripes on their faces.

Studies have shown that striped zebras and tigers get bit by flies way less than those that are solid colors.

A Victorian example of feathers to deter flies (and confer status!)

We don’t stripe our faces, but we do put feathers in our hair or tuck them into the snapback of our baseball caps. We have big wild turkey feathers all over our farm (You can often find them for sale in our ebay store…other people like them for making crafts.)

We are lucky that wild turkey feathers are often white and black striped. The more feathers, the better. It’s less weird than walking around with a cup on your head. There are no sticky messes and nothing to buy. But… the flies will still be there. They will be buzzing and darting and all the annoying junk they do. They will just bite less. They can’t help but be attracted by the height and movement.

We keep feathers by all our entrances and stick them in our hats or ponytails as we head out the door. Or we pop a netted hat over our cap.

You just don’t want to do run out bareheaded. It’s a recipe for attack. Unless of course you take your 6 foot son along with you…. Then you will be free from the buzzing and biting, but not from his whining.

Best of luck in your battles against biting flies. If you have any other tricks to share, leave them in the comments below. We will be working on this problem for years to come and will update if we come up with any other ways to keep these buggers at bay.

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