Weird Facts About Northern Ontario Bugs
Insects are a part of life in Northeastern Ontario. But did you know they’re so infamous there’s an Oscar-nominated film about Ontario’s blackflies? Or that slathering yourself in animal fat can prevent mosquito bites?
With the help of Jacqueline Bertrand, a Horticulture Technician at Science North in Sudbury, we rounded up some weird and wonderful facts about bugs for your enjoyment. She also shared a few anecdotes relating to her work with insects at Science North—including the black widow spider she kept on her desk as a pet!
We recommend reading these facts around the campfire next time you’re up north to take your mind off the bugs.
Top ten weird facts about bugs
Pass me that bear grease, would ya?
Bug spray is a relatively new invention, so Indigenous Peoples and early settlers had to get creative to keep the bugs away. How did they do that? According to Science North’s Bertrand, the answer is: bear grease. Yep! Lots and lots of bear grease. Apparently oily skin makes it tough for the bugs to land. While it may sound odd, fat from local animals was a standard defense against mosquitos back in those days. Down in the areas that are now Florida and Texas, for example, the Indigenous Nations used alligator grease!
If you film it, they will come
Blackflies are such a quintessential part of Northern Ontario, there’s even an Academy Award-nominated film about them! Check out the animated short Blackfly on the National Film Board of Canada’s website. Produced in 1991 by Christopher Hinton, and based on the song by folk singer Wade Hemsworth with backup vocals by the McGarrigle sisters, the film recounts an all-too-familiar battle with the pesky bugs.
Female mosquitos are the only ones that bite. They use the iron and protein in human blood to make their eggs. So it isn’t personal! They’re just biting you in order to have healthy families… that can continue to bite you for generations. Both male and female mosquitos feed on water and nectar.
Come into my parlour…
We asked Bertrand what's the weirdest non-native insect she’s ever encountered. Her answer? A black widow spider! A local grocery store worker had discovered it while unpacking some grapes. “Controlling his impulse to get rid of it (squish) he thought of us and brought it in to me,” she says. “I kept the little lady on my desk for three years to show visitors.”
Light-colored clothes really do keep the insects at bay. Apparently mosquitoes can spot dark colors more easily than lighter ones. So if you want to stay incognito—pack light. Literally.
Just 1,003 more bites to go…
The more often you’re bitten by a particular species of mosquito, the less likely you are to react to it. That’s why tourists are often plagued by bites their first trip up north while the locals are hardly bothered. The only downside is there are 67 species of mosquito in Ontario. That’s a lot of bites to endure to build up an immunity!
Bugs in books
They say to write what you know. That must be why there’s a ton of great Canadian literature that deals with bugs. Try Giles Blunt’s Black Fly Season, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer's The Nettle Spinner, or check out this terrifying “Blackfly Rally” as imagined by Marni Jackson. If you want a stiff drink to compliment your reading, there’s even a Canadian cocktail company called Black Fly Booze!
The circle of life
Mosquitos are no fun. The bites, the buzzing, the swarming—no thanks! But without mosquitos we’d be in trouble. These little insects are an important part of the food chain, providing nourishment for bats, birds, fish, frogs, spiders, and turtles. So take comfort in the fact that while the mosquito may be snacking on you today, it will soon be a meal for someone else.
What’s that on your face?
We asked Bertrand about Science North’s resident tarantulas. (Don’t worry—you won’t come across any of them on your camping trip. They are non-native to Canada!) Did you know, for example, that female tarantulas can live up to 25 years, while males only live up to five years? Bertrand also notes that tarantulas aren’t dangerous to humans—our fear of them is based on their size (some species have leg spans of up to 12 inches, yikes!) and from their portrayal in movies (think films like Arachnophobia). Plus, the species you’ll find at Science North is one of the most docile of all the tarantulas: the easy-going Chilean Rose species.
Finally, we asked Bertrand what was the best, scientifically-proven way to relieve a bug bite? Her answer? “Scientifically, I can't say—but I swear by Vicks VapoRub.” So there you have it. Of course, if you really want to avoid the bugs up here, try visiting during the fall and winter!