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Deer Fly Control and Deterrent Tips to Keep Biting Flies Away

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We're kicking off deer fly and mosquito season around here, so I thought I'd take a minute to share some tips for deer fly control to help you keep biting flies away. (See Natural Mosquito Repellents That Work and Natural Tick Control for more on those biting insects.)

deer fly on skin with text overlay "keep biting flies away"

Where do Deer Flies Live? Is there a “Deer fly Season”?

As anyone who has ventured into the woods can tell you where deer flies prefer to hang out. Since they lay their eggs in mud areas near water, swamps and wet lands are some of the worst spots to get bit. That said, they also make themselves at home around livestock, campgrounds, and open fields – anywhere there's a meal nearby and somewhere to lay their eggs not too far away. Deer fly season peaks in June/July in most of their range. They are common throughout most of the United States and Canada.

Do all Deer Flies Bite?

Deer flies are also called a Marsh Fly, Sheep Fly, Yellow Fly, Pine Fly, May Fly, and Salt Marsh Greenheads. Whatever you call them, they're annoying. The females are the guilty parties. They're after your blood, and their bites really itch. The males feed on pollen and nectar from plants.

Deer flies tend to go for the head and upper body, whereas horse flies like to go for the legs. Deer flies are about 1/4″ to 1/3″ (6 -8 mm) long. Horse flies are about 2-3 times the size of deer flies. Like mosquitoes, deer flies are attracted to carbon dioxide from breathing, warmth, motion and darker colors.

Deer fly saliva contains an anti-coagulant, which means the bites keep bleeding for a while. Those who are allergic to anticoagulants can have a reaction to deer fly bites. The bites will swell and itch, so it's important to keep kids from scratching to prevent secondary infections. Check out 15 Home Remedies for Bug Bites and Stings for treatment tips.

Deer Fly Deterrent to Keep Biting Flies Away from Your Head

My youngest complained about deer flies every time he  mowed the yard. The deer flies dive bombed his eyes and circled his head.

A while back my husband told me a story about when he was a Boy Scout. They were traveling through a swampy area in Canada, being plagued by deer flies. Their guide plucked a muddy fern and set it on top of his hat. The flies started circling the fern instead of his head. The rest of the troops followed suit, and they were one their way without flies in their faces.

We're short on ferns around here, but do have peacock feathers. I took my son's hat, a little duct tape and a couple of feathers, and set him up with his own personal deer fly deterrent.

boy wearing feather on hat as a deer fly deterrent to keep biting flies away
boy wearing feather on hat as a deer fly deterrent to keep biting flies away, side view

Voila! No more flies in the eyes. He hasn't been bit or bothered by deer flies since he started wearing this hat. Plus, I think he makes those feathers look good. 😉

More Deer Fly Deterrents and Deer Fly Control Tips

Deerfly patches stick onto your hat to trap the little buggers, and larger sticky traps for deer flies and other biting flies to keep near your barn, stable or campsite.  The patches might also work well on a pant leg or wrist if the flies are really bad and going after any exposed skin.

Tom B. shared another handy option on our Facebook page for those who are driving tractors:

“My uncle has a cattle ranch in Canada. The land is completely flat, and he is also plagued with deer flies when he's out on his tractor. His trick is tying a red rag to a tall plastic pipe strapped to his tractor. Always works. They go after the tallest thing around.”

deer fly on skin with text overlay "keep biting flies away"

Biting Black Flies and Buffalo Gnats

This year (2018), there's been an extreme surge in the population of small biting black flies (also known as buffalo gnats or turkey gnats) in many areas. My friend, Joy, of Adventure Acres, was hard hit with buffalo gnats on her small homestead. She checked on her chicken flock at night and all was well. The next day during morning chores, they found many chickens dead. Some died from inhaling the gnats, others seemed to have died from an allergic reaction to the number of bites received. The gnats were mobbing the chickens, biting every exposed surface, even working under the feathers to bite. Although she knew gnats were in the area, they have never had a problem like this before. Joy's grandfather noted that he had not seen so many gnats in the 90 years that he has lived in the area.

To save the rest of the flock, Joy mixed up a vanilla spray gnat repellent with three parts vanilla and one part water. She sprayed this on the chickens and around the coop and yard. The results were visible – gnats left the chickens, even crawling out from under the feathers where they were hiding. You can use homemade vanilla extract if you have it. (Real vanilla extract is best because it's more potent, but imitation will do in a pinch.) Place the vanilla/water mix in a spray bottle and apply liberally to areas that you want to protect.

Is there a biting black fly/buffalo gnat season?

Yes, there is a biting black fly season where activity peaks for these little buggers. The worst of the black flies appear for a several weeks in late spring/early summer. Timing varies by area and weather patterns for the year.

biting black fly on skin
Close up of biting black fly or buffalo gnat (Source – Wikimedia Commons from USDA publication by Christian Thompson )

If You Get Bit by a Biting Fly

Remember, if you're a little slow with the fly repellents and you get bit, we have help at 15 Home Remedies for Bug Bites and Stings.

Thanks for stopping by, and don't forget to Like, Pin, Stumble or otherwise share this post if you find it useful. 🙂

You may also find useful:

Originally posted in 2012, updated in 2017, 2018.

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69 Comments

  1. Neat idea!!! I get bit by those nasty buggers when I walk along the canal – they HURT! I gotta find me a feather or a fern!

    (oh, and I tried to stifle but just can’t help pointing out – ‘Wallah’ should be ‘Voila’, actually pronounced vwah-lah. It’s one of those French words that don’t sound like they look they should! okay, I’ll shut up now…) 😉

      1. Haha!! Good, I’m glad you don’t mind a ‘know-it-all’ like me!! Bring on the Spanish… ;D

        1. Can we just talk about the bugs? If your going to banter all cute like then get a bed together. Stop wasting time on this thread. Jack-asses

          1. Jeremy – we do have a room together – it’s called “I own the website”.

            Having a pleasant conversation is not wasting time. It’s common courtesy – which you would know if anyone had taught you manners.

            Also, speaking of spelling errors (which is what prompted the first comment), the word you were looking for is “you’re”, not “your”. Maybe Karla can help you out, too, if you ask nicely.

            The post itself contains the relevant information about deer fly control. I update it as comments come in and people share tips that I missed. No need to be rude about reading comments that are completely optional.

          2. Wow, I am super glad that Laurie responded to you because I don’t think I would have been as nice….

  2. This is great info, as always! We will put this to use. Thanks!
    Wanted to also let you know the lotion bar link isn’t working. Or maybe just not for me.

  3. I dont even use a feather the bucket hat works well on it’s own to keep the flys out of the face. The bucket hat also keep long hair from being grabbed by trees. Putting your hand above your head works too, but can only hold it up so long.

  4. Do you think taping a feather to my feet would work? Every year I get bit on my ankles. Im allergic to them and my feet swell to look like a cabbage patch doll. Then a blister forms, pops, and oozes for a week (sorry for gross description) and it’s very painful. I have catnip in my bugs spray, maybe I need more? Btw, I did a Google search for this issue and your article was the first listed! Congratulations Laurie, you’ve done good for yourself. Keep on truckin’

    1. I’d vote for a stronger topical bug deterrent, especially given that you’re allergic, possibly something with an essential oil blend like Terrashield, or citronella and mint. If you get bit, do your best to get a poultice on it immediately to pull out the toxins and reduce inflammation. My favorite go to for bites and stings is common plantain. It’s worked wonders for me. You might also want to check out the post on Home Remedies for Bug Bites and Stings.

      Thanks for the words of support. 🙂

  5. I wonder if you could try something similar for horses? Ever since the weather warmed up this year, when the kids and I go riding, the deer flies and horse flies swarm us! Even when we use spray on the poor horses, they get bit over and over.

  6. Interesting..I wonder if that’s not the original reason the Native Americans (and others) wore feathers & headdresses on their heads…and why many hats often have a feather in the hatband !?

  7. This fantastic advice. I will try it tomorrow. I hike daily in a wetland and nothing so far has worked well. Deet, oil of lemon eucalyptus, icaridin. Permithrin is hard to get without additives in Canada, I have to wait until I can go to the US to get Sawyers version.

    1. Anything that rides above the head will attract the deer flies to that instead of you when you are upright. It’ll be of limited help when you’re sitting down or laying down.

  8. Hi Laurie! Love your information. I have been Researching information about deer flies and horseflies online and found your site. I love that you provide information that is different from what the other sites post and not just the same thing over and over again. I have a question… I live in North Florida and I keep getting bit on the back of my legs and my ankles. I’m not sure if I’m getting bit by horseflies or deer flies because they are so fast and we have both here. Do you have any advice on how to identify which fly by the bite?

    1. Hi Becky.

      Thankfully I haven’t been bitten by a horse fly, so I don’t have an easy way to compare them. The bite descriptions I’m finding are similar for both. Around here, we have both, but it’s been my experience that the deer flies are much more likely to attempt to snack on me. I’ll find the horse flies in barns, or stuck in windows of the coop.

    2. The deer flies hurt, but the horse flies hurt worse. Their bite is nearly as bad as a yellowjacket sting in my opinion. In my experience the horse flies are slower to make their getaway than deer flies, and so are easier to swat. If you are willing to wait a second after you see them, you give them a chance to start dinner, and then whop them. This is true for either type.

  9. The deer flies on my property are terrible this year also the ticks too. One home remedy I heard of and tried is take an old hat and put vicks vapo rub on the brim, sides, and back, I also put a little dab on my ears, elbows and back of my neck. It actually does work, the flies will still buzz around your head but wont land and will leave after a few moments. I havent found a way to keep the ticks away though, they seem to hitchhike on the clothes and strike when the timings right…

      1. The same deterrents that help with deer flies may also help with yellowflies, especially the traps and sticky patches. Eliminate standing water around the yard to reduce breeding areas. The flies can travel one to two miles, so spraying the yard with pesticides is unlikely to provide significant relief. Avoid outside activities at dawn and dusk, when they are most active, and shady, moist areas. (If possible – I know work demands otherwise at times.)

  10. When I was kid living on a farm in the ’50s we used DDT to control bugs and flies. Years later Diazinon became the Atomic Bomb to kill bugs. Both have been banned from used in many countries. We also used Creolin liquid cleaner mixed with Lard to smear on exposed skin and on our hats. It smelled terrible but it kept the flies away., Burned like heck if it got in your eyes or an open wound. Then came Deet with a high concentration which did help but the allowable per cent strength of it has been reduced in bug repellents so it doesn’t work as well as it did in the 60s-70s. Deer flies were a nuisance but could be kept at bay with the Creolin mixture. With DDT sprayed on ones hat and clothes they died after they did light. No Seeums, as they have been called, are horrid. Nothing seems to repel those little blood suckers. This year, 2018, bugs of all kinds have become worse and wide spread. Bed Bugs which were all but wiped out using DDT are now on the increase globally with no permanent solution. Since they apparently don’t carry diseases the health authorities don’t view them as a health threat or problem. They are if one is allergic to the bites and they become infected. Not to mention the itchiness that develops from the bites as much as 7-10 days later. I have lived in a 20 multi unit bldg for over eleven yrs and never had a bug problem. This year, 2018, my wife and I started getting bites. The said they could be flea or Bed Bug bites. We set sticky traps everywhere and didn’t catch a thing. Sprayed Deet everywhere and still got bites. Got a PCO with two different dogs to sniff for Bed Bugs and a visual inspection by the PCO, nothing. Recently I found a dead earwig on the floor where I had put diatomaceous earth all around the baseboards and under the furniture. Whatever is biting us leaving small bites which become infected at times is still a mystery. If it is a bug or fly it must be invisible to the naked eye and alludes all sticky traps and insecticides. Maybe it is time to bring back DDT/Diazinon on a limited basis under strict controls to get these nuisance blood suckers under control. There has not been any chemicals or pesticides developed that equal the killing power of DDT/Diazinon since they were banned. Ticks are another BIG problem this year. They are everywhere and have overpopulated many areas. It is difficult to enjoy the great outdoors when being attacked and bitten by blood sucking insects. It is difficult to relax and get a peaceful nights rest when being attached by Bed Bugs. We have and are losing the war against these blood suckers. Some which carry deadly diseases. The Bugs are winning the war 🙂

    1. Bugs that are attracted to carbon dioxide can be lured away by mixing up some yeast and warm water in a soda bottle. I add a little sugar to feed the yeast, they go in the bottle and drown. Experiment with essential oils, spiders hate peppermint oil as do mice. Ants hate citrus, you get the picture. Search Pinterest I have found a lot on there.

    2. I went to Peru on a Medical Mission and some were attacked by bed bugs the first night. I had brought Permetherin and was ok, but in the morning our hosts took all the mattresses outside and left them in the sun all day. No one had another bed bug bite the rest of the trip (about 18 of us). Pretty amazing!

  11. Thank you for the lack of information . I literally found no,information that was suggested I would learn. I want to find a way to rid my property of deer flies and keep it chicken safe. Thank you for your the deception.

    1. Little bit harsh on that critique there, Jason. There is no way to completely get rid of deer flies. They fly. It’s the damndest thing. You could kill every one on your place, and more can fly in.

      As outlined in the post (which it would seem you didn’t read), you can use traps, sprays and other techniques to reduce populations and keep them from biting you, but that’s about it.

      1. I wanted to say after reading Jason’s nasty, stupid post, that you *did* help me. Blackfly season appears to be letting up now, so of course, deer flies are just now emerging, and I’ve been trying to find a way to keep them off my dogs when we walk around town. I’ve decided that I’m going to try pinning some flags or something on their harnesses. I’ve ordered some Farnam Repel-X for them also, since it works for horses, to see if that works as well. And for me, the deer fly strips for my mesh hat!

        Anyway, thank you for your blog; I wish I had found it sooner. =)

  12. Skin so soft ,an Avon product,works the best kind for my dogs ears.Just soak a piece of cotton wool and wipe the ear inside and out,until I started using this last year my dogs ears were just a mess.Haven’t found anything as good for me yet so will be trying the feather in the hat

  13. I have a cottage 300 km north of Toronto, and over the last 30 years have discovered a simple way to help keep the pests off of my and my family.
    we use bug spray, deep woods off, muskol etc, on arms, torso, neck, backs of hands etc. and then wear a t-shirt for example.
    However, each member of my family has a old long sleeved dress shirt that we put on to go outside (this is only in the summer, also only when not raining, or cold etc.) , and then spray this shirt with bug spray. The key here, is that this light shirt rarely gets washed, we use it like a very light jacket, and keep putting the bug spray on it.
    You don’t wash a jacket each time you go outside either.
    The shirt is also slightly oversized so it does not make you that much warmer.
    Clearly if you do a lot of work outside and sweat through the shirt, get it very dirty, or spend a few hours using a chain saw (and your clothes smell like 2 -cycle oil/exhaust) you may want to wash it with greater frequency.

  14. Awesome article! I love skin so soft, and the Vick’s vapor rub. I’d forgotten about them, and you reminded me. Thank you!

  15. I live in about 200 acres of forest up here in Northern Wisconsin and the deer flies, horse flies, mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, everything is just horrible. I feed the deer sometimes, but just a short walk to the feeding area and back, and I have ticks on me and flies biting my face and head. Between July and August, and some of September, you don’t even want to go out at all. I am going to try your tips. Thanks!

    1. Why do you continue to feed deer? Their very presence is drawing more of the insects (ticks and flies) to you and your property, thus causing you to not even want to go outside anymore! Although we cannot control every problematic insect, it seems counterintuitive to encourage the deer activity and then wonder/complain about the insects? Think about it.

  16. We just bought some property on a lake that has a lot of woods on it also. So I Thank you for all the tips on Deer Flies I am highly allergic.
    As for wood ticks I found online a Vinegar and water mixture in a spray bottle helped me with the ticks. Equal parts mixture then spray your clothes. They also suggested leaving soaked cotton balls in your yard. I didn’t do the cotton balls, but did spray my clothes and did not have any ticks on me.

  17. The best deterrent and capture method I have used with success was given a few years ago from a fellow in Texas. Put a dark blue Solo cup With “ tree tanglefoot” on it on your hat or anything moving. You won’t get bit and the devils with stick to the cup an never bother you again. Its messy, but when you see 30 or more of these devils stuck, you’ll become a believer.
    Note that I’ve tried other brands and colors, they don’t work.

    1. I live in the Midwest and have heard more about Tree Tanglefoot than any other product. We back up to a huge farm on the west with livestock and corn being planted directly across. Our backyard is our paradise with our pool and these boogers have claimed it thus far. I am scaling our shed and think I will spread some of Tanglefood atop of that in a cup near o little flag. I will let you know how the results are!

  18. I lived in Northern Maine for several years and as a trapper for a while. No repellent available in the U.S. was completely effective against any insect. However, across the border in New Brunswick I bought a bottle of repellent that stated on the label “Not for sale in the U.S.” This stuff looked and smelled for all the world like the brown spit that comes out of a grass hopper if you hold it between your fingers and look it in the eyes. Since I had very little of it I would keep it in my pocket in reserve for when things got really bad. When I would take it out to put it on ALL the bugs would be heading DIRECTLY away. Most other things delay bugs from biting; this was a true REPELLENT. Unfortunately I do not know what it was, because it ate the label off the bottle before I read the ingredients. From the color, smell and stickiness I suspect it to be an emulsion of cedar oil and formic acid. I’ve been tempted to experiment but formic acid will take your skin off if you get it wrong, so I’ve always chickened out.
    I would pay $100 an ounce for whatever it was. If anyone knows anything about this stuff I would love to know more.
    Beware of Skin-so-soft. That, I tried once at night in the Adirondacks. To the mosquitoes you become like toast and the Skin-so-soft is like spreading on the butter and jam. I’ve lived in Maine, hunted Quebec, and Western Ontario and the Skin-so-soft mosquito experience stood out among my worst bitings ever, where as I usually tell people that in my experience the Adirondacks are relative child’s play compared to real biting insect country. The two people who said that Skin-so-soft it works–sold the stuff.

    1. Thanks for the tip about skin-so-soft. I know some people love it, but I suspect they’ve never been into hardcore bug country. I wonder was was in the mystery repellent? I’ve never seen something that matches that description – other than grasshopper juice.

  19. Some good comments and info here. I live just southeast of Boston about 3 miles from the ocean. We have both deer flies and horse flies in our neighborhood (I have wetlands that are actually pretty dry about 90% of the time behind our house). Deer flies seem to be active here through early August while the horse flies hang on a while longer. Never been bit by a deer fly but was bit by a horse fly on my foot about 2 years ago. Developed cellulitis on that leg and it swelled up by like a sausage. Antibiotics took care of that. Deer flies seem to be most active in the direct sunlight in our backyard but don’t seem to venture up into the front yard or deck area. They also seem to most active between 9am and 5 pm. They also seem to be less active on cloudy or breezy days. We try to limit our backyard work to early evenings. Ticks are the main problem around here and seem to be active even in the winter. Mosquitoes are a health problem around here with EEE but overall aren’t too bad in our area. Thankfully we also don’t live too close to any salt marsh…the closest being about 3 miles from here or else we would be dealing with the 3rd member of the Moe, Larry and Curly family of flies….the dreaded Greenhead.

  20. Hi all. I get bitten on my ankles & elbows so the feather doesn’t help me. I’m highly allergic so I have learned over the last couple years to pull the toxin out with a gadget. The original intent is supposed to be used to remove black heads (which I don’t have) It’s like a magic wand. Carry it with you & as soon as your bitten suction the bite ASAP. most times it won’t itch but if it does then I use Benadryl topical. I I don’t use my little friend I blowup like a balloon 😩. The 1 I use is MIO Spa Science sold for under $30.
    Don’t feel obligated to post this. It’s just my experience & what I use.

  21. wear a blue helmet coated with tanglefoot, will keep them from biting,when back of helmet is full of flys just flip it around.To clean use acetone and recoat .Can also hang blue items coated with tanglefoot along edges of wetlands or woods.

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