West of the Fields

A tropical ecologist reporting from the field. Musings on life and art, botfly extractions, tropical plant identification, beer, parrots, machetes. Etc.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Disgusting news flash

OK, this entry is going to be really disgusting. If you are easily grossed out, stop reading now. Or at least don't say I didn't warn you.

Here's the news flash: I just had my first botfly. For those unfamiliar with the organism, it's a fly that lays it eggs on a mosquito. When the mosquito bites a bird or mammal, the larvae hatch and drop off, activated by body heat, and burrow into the skin. There they begin to develop.

The best way to avoid botflies is to keep clean. Apparently it takes a few hours from when the larvae hatch to when they begin to burrow in, and if you scrub yourself well every day you can avoid them. I don't really have much evidence to back this up, except circumstantial case studies: I know a guy who got eighteen botflies in ten weeks, and he was notorious for not showering, and for wearing the same skanky field clothes nonstop. The second runner-up (six botflies in a month and a half) was pretty stinky too. I'm generally assiduous about staying clean in the field, but in Nicaragua I went for a few days without showering. The shower was an ice-cold drip coming straight out of the cloud forest. I thought staying dry would help keep me healthy. Well, it kind of backfired, I guess. Judging from the instar, I'm pretty sure it was a Nicaraguan botfly.

The first indication of a botfly is a mosquito bite that doesn't go away, and begins to itch and prickle more after a few weeks. I had just such a bite behind my ear. I vainly hoped it was just a weird fungus or something, but when I looked closely at it, using the bathroom mirror and the signal mirror on my compass, I could see the spiracle (a small tube that the larva extends through the skin to be able to breathe).

The worst part, I think, was realizing that I had it. There's something viscerally horrifying about the thought of a larva, a parasite, living inside your skin. And there's no way to get rid of it right away-- in order to get rid of a botfly, you have to kill it first. (While the larva is alive, it resists being removed by digging little hooks into the flesh around it.) Well, I knew the theory of botfly extraction, having been present at enough of them. I cleaned the area with alcohol, dried it off, and put a piece of electrical tape over it to block off the spiracle and kill it. Then I went to bed. It was hard to sleep; the botfly was restless at first, pricking around, and all I could think of was Aliens.

In the morning, I pulled off the tape and used my emergency snakebite kit to create suction and pull out the larva. It wasn't quite dead, and it resisted. But eventually it came out. It wasn't very big; maybe half a centimeter plus the spiracle. The pale cylindrical body had concentric rows of black spines. I didn't look closely at it. I threw it in the trash and then took the trash out to the bin by the road.

The attitude that researchers have towards botflies varies widely. I've known people who preserved their botflies in alcohol and gave them cute names. I even know one guy who let his hatch out, because, as he said, "it's the closest I'll ever come to being pregnant." Some people consider them just another rite of passage, like a bala sting. (When I got my first bala sting, out on the Peje a couple years ago, my assistant Andrew said, "well, I guess you got your jungle cherry popped.") Overall, the experience wasn't nearly as bad as I had thought, somehow. Perhaps the anticipation of a thing is worse than the thing itself. Still, as far as jungle rites of passage go, I would take a bala sting over a botfly any day.


At 12:50 PM, Anonymous Roger W said...

no Bot flies in NJ

At 2:28 PM, Blogger Susan said...

Count yourself lucky! And many thanks for all your help with AOTBFS.

At 1:12 PM, Blogger Waterfall said...


At 11:21 PM, Blogger Mohsin said...

Your 1st bot, eh? How many have you entertained since?

At 6:21 PM, Blogger Susan said...

1st and only, so far! I make a point of staying super-clean in the field. And count myself lucky.


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