Killing Deer Flies and Black Flies with a Tanglefoot Hat

2015 February 21

Something that I’ve mentioned before is the possibility of catching biting flies before they can bite by using a hat with something sticky on it. This idea is based on Dr. R. F. Mizell’s traps, which he originally designed for putting on slow-moving vehicles to “troll” for deer flies. But it works even better if the trap is on a person’s head, since then we are adding some actual bait to the system. Since our yard has big issues with horse flies, deer flies, black flies, mosquitos, biting midges, and the like, I had quite a lot of incentive to actually go ahead and give the whole idea a whirl over the summer. So here it is, complete with the couple of deer flies it caught within the first few minutes of use:

I used cheap plastic bump caps, which are generally less than $4. [1] And then, from our local feed-and-seed store, I bought a tub of Tree Tanglefoot[2] This is a mixture of low-melting waxes and resins that is formulated to be thick enough to stay where you put it, and also “non-drying”, so that it will stay sticky for weeks, months, or even years. I then spread the tanglefoot on the hat with a butter knife (it is about the consistency of peanut butter, so it spread pretty easily), put the hat on my head, and went for a walk.

At first, I thought that I just wasn’t getting any deer flies. Except every now and then, I’d hear a short bbzzzzZZZ*, with the sound cutting off abruptly. And then when I got back to the house and took off the hat, here is what I had caught:

Basically, the whole thing is very satisfactory. The big problem with deer flies and horse flies is that they just kind of hover around your head, landing and taking off constantly, so even a single fly will follow you for an entire walk and is annoying enough to make you kind of crazy. This hat, though, only lets her land once, and you never even notice that she was ever there. The effectiveness against deer flies is practically perfect. Unlike the insect head nets that we’ve used in the past, the tanglefoot hat doesn’t block vision or trap heat at all, and eliminates any distraction from flies beating themselves against the netting.

The other, even bigger issue in our yard is black flies. Wade Hemsworth’s little song here is not as much of an exaggeration as you might think:

These are the tiny little simuliid flies that hover around your head in clouds, and will come in to bite your face, ears, neck, and arms, leaving these big, extremely itchy welts. Mosquito repellents don’t work on them, and neither do mosquito traps. We had some luck knocking back their populations by putting Bacillus thuringensis israelensis granules into the streams where they breed, but the geometry of the swamp makes it hard to get them all, so they are still around.

But, it turns out the Tanglefoot Hat is effective against blackflies, too! Here they are also stuck to the hat, along with several more deer flies picked up on a slightly longer walk in the woods:

I unfortunately didn’t get the hat made until July, after the black flies had started to taper off a bit. If I’d been wearing it back in early June, it probably would have been absolutely coated with black flies.

It’s kind of interesting that the deer flies tend to get caught by their wings, while the black flies get stuck by their feet.

Even if it doesn’t get 100% of the black flies, it definitely gets a large fraction of them.[5] This makes it a lot easier to then squash the ones that do get through, and it makes the whole business much more tolerable. My big hope, though, is that if we can wipe out the ones that are attracted to humans, we might eventually get to the point where the black flies are all descended from the ones that aren’t attracted to us, and we’ll have bred a strain of black flies that simply aren’t inclined to bite people.

At any rate, this worked so well that I used it pretty much all summer, until the biting flies tapered off at the end of August. On the rare occasions that a deer fly attacked and avoided getting stuck, she’d still end up with enough gum on her wings and legs that she’d either fall on my shoulders or to the ground, where she was easily squashed. I spent a lot more time walking around in the woods and out back than I would have otherwise, because the biting flies had simply ceased to be an issue.

The main downside is that Sandy, Sam, and Rosie all say it looks ridiculous. Not as ridiculous as putting a blue mop bucket on my head or attaching a blue plastic cup to my hat as some other people have done, but ridiculous enough that they made me promise not to wear it off of our property. Also, there are some concerns that people with long hair might have trouble with it getting stuck to the hat, and since they all have long hair they never actually wanted to wear one. But still, I think that even if I’m the only one wearing it, I’m still knocking back the biting fly population sufficiently that it benefits everyone else.

One additional thing: I’m not sure that the color makes a lot of difference. At the same time as I got the blue bump cap, I also got a yellow one. This was also smeared with Tanglefoot, and it seemed to work just as well. I think that if you are making stand-alone traps like Dr. Mizell built originally, the color matters. But, if you have an actual walking, breathing, sweating human under the hat, the color of the hat becomes largely irrelevant. So, go ahead and use whatever cheap headgear you might have that you don’t mind smearing with something extremely sticky, and that is impermeable enough to keep the Tanglefoot from soaking through and getting into your hair[3].

Another option is the Tred-Not Deerfly Patches[4], which are basically a piece of flypaper that you stick on the back of a baseball cap. These reportedly work really well too, and are more convenient if you are only occasionally going to be in areas infested with biting flies. They sell for $10/dozen, though, and only last for a few days, so they could get expensive over time compared to my tanglefoot hat that lasted all summer.

[1] Bump caps look like hard hats, but are designed just to protect the wearer from bumping their heads on things, and so are much, much cheaper than my real, ANSI-certified hard hat.

[2] The Tanglefoot Company has been in Grand Rapids, Michigan for 128 years, where they originally started by making flypaper. They’re currently owned by Contech, Inc., a Canadian company that deals a lot with “Green” pest control, but the Tanglefoot plant is still in Michigan. The tanglefoot comes in several forms, including sprays and tapes. It is quite likely that all of them will work just fine for making anti-fly traps (and the spray would probably be most convenient), but the stuff in the tub is cheapest. It says on the label that it is a mixture of 25% “natural gum resins” (probably pine resin), with the remaining 75% being castor oil and carnauba wax.

[3] While the Tree Tanglefoot works great for catching flies, you do want to be careful with it, as it is extremely hard to wash off. I have left the brims of the bump caps uncoated and just handle them by the brims, and made a couple of wire hooks beside the front door to hang them on so that they never get brought into the house. If you do get Tanglefoot on yourself, Dr. Mizell says that GoJo Natural Orange Pumice Hand Cleaner works well for getting it back off again.

[4] Interestingly, these hat patches are made in Michigan, too. I see that the comments about them on Amazon suggest that the biting flies in places like Florida, which go for the body or the ankles, aren’t much affected by sticky objects on the head. So, maybe this approach is most effective on flies in the Midwest and Northeast, and so it is appropriate that the products used in this approach are made in the Midwest as well.

[5] Update as of May 27, 2015: Well, it is black fly season again,[6] and it turns out that the hat is more effective on the spring black flies than I thought it would be. It catches close to 100% of those, as well! I can sit out at the picnic table, and see these periodic waves of black flies that converge towards me, swirl around my heat briefly, and then . . . nothing. It is most gratifying! In fact, if I wear the hat and hang around near my family members, it seems to protect them nearly as well as it protects me! It is not so effective for the mosquitos, unfortunately, but for them we can probably just break out the Mosquito Magnet trap. Assuming it still works, that is.

[6] End-of-Season Report for the 2015 biting fly season: Here is the Tanglefoot Hat that I used all summer. I switched to a brimmed hard-hat instead of a brimless bump cap, both because the brim provides a non-sticky portion for handling the hat, and because the brim helps keep the sun off of my ears and neck. I’m also told that it looks less ridiculous (the bump caps are smaller, and on me they look kind of like a comically-small vaudeville bowler hat). The small black dots are black flies, and the larger dots are mostly deer flies.


And word is apparently getting around! This is from a listing for bump caps on Amazon:


If enough people do this, we might actually be able to largely eliminate human-biting deer flies and black flies in vast areas!

4 Responses
  1. Carole permalink
    February 21, 2015

    We just have deer flies and they seem to be flummoxed by my floppy hat.
    I’d have thought the yellow would do better just because that’s the color used for fly paper.

  2. February 23, 2015

    Brilliant! Now if you can work out a licensing deal with major sports leagues, you’ll really have something. Support the Lions while killing pests with our brand new sticky Detroit Lions helmet!

  3. February 24, 2015

    Very creative idea! I’m not sure if I’m personally up for being “bait”, though!

  4. July 14, 2017

    I know this is an old post but wanted to add: I use a blue baseball cap, put packing tape on it and smother tree tenderfoot on it. Once full of dead flies I peel it off in one go and repeat. Still looks goofy but way more comfy. Also I think the medium blue works better so I use that colour of cap since the colour is clearly visible through the tape.

Comments are closed.