First Report on the Horse Pal

This is the season for horse flies in Alabama. Must be a good year for the folks at BitingFlies.com; I bet they’re selling a lot of Horse Pal traps.


This is our first season to be living at the farm during the summer, but it’s the third season we’ve been here for the long hot days and sultry nights that make summers in Alabama so oppressive to the unaccustomed. We had not yet experienced a horse fly outbreak like the one this summer. We can only conclude that the problem is worse because horse flies lay their eggs in moist soil and that the cool, wet spring of 2010 gave them plenty of nice, comfy hatcheries.

For whatever reason, the horse flies began arriving in the third week of May. First one here and there, then two or three at a time, and by the end of May, whenever we were outside they sounded like a Mary Kay convention. The outdoor showers that had been so pleasant for both of us grew increasingly miserable as we dodged and swatted our way through a 2-minute wetting down, followed by grabbing a towel and lunging inside for protection from the swarm.

It was near the end of May when our dear sister Lynda loaned us her Horse Pal. She had begun to doubt whether it was doing any good and thought it would be a good test to see if (a) she would notice its absence and (b) we would notice its presence.

The Horse Pal is the commercial version of a “Manitoba” trap. The Manitoba trap takes advantage of the way horse flies hunt, namely visually by looking for subtle contrasting movements typical of mammal behavior. Horse flies need blood to live, so they’re always on the lookout for mammals.

The Horse Pal uses an inflated shiny black ball suspended beneath a light colored fabric, so that it sways back and forth whenever there’s even a slight breeze. And as you surely know by now, “there’s always a breeze at Longleaf Breeze.” So the black ball of our Horse Pal is constantly swaying, sometimes almost imperceptibly so, but enough to get a horse fly’s attention. The horse fly wanders over to take a look, decides that the black ball isn’t a tasty mammal after all, and flies away. When she flies away, however — and it is one of those brutal facts of life that all biting horse flies are women, the men being useful only for sex — she usually flies up rather than out. When she flies up, she is ensnared in the light colored fabric and drawn to the light coming from above it through mosquito netting. Above the mosquito netting is an opaque metal framework that holds everything together, and above it is a small hole topped by a clear plastic jar. The horse fly works incessantly to find an opening in the mosquito netting to escape. As she flies back and forth, she can see the light coming in through the jar and eventually enters the jar through a wire cone. The cone keeps her from escaping downward, and the sun creates enough heat to quiet her anguished buzzing and turn her into raw material for our compost pile.

We can now answer both of Lynda’s questions with a resounding yes:

(a) On June 10 we got an anguished e-mail from Lynda: “Help! I need the Horse Pal back!” She (and her poor horses) had noticed the difference within a couple of weeks. So we loaded up her trap in Cracker and took it back to her. She now reports that things have calmed down again.

(b) The Horse Pal we borrowed from Lynda immediately began bagging horse flies, typically 15-20 per day. At first we could tell only that we were killing horse flies, not that we were seeing fewer of them attack us. That’s really why I have waited until now to say much about it to you.

We now have our own Horse Pal, which arrived in mid-June and immediately began attracting (and killing) our tormentors. Now here’s the really good news: not only are we seeing a continuing supply of dead horse flies in the trap; we’re also seeing fewer horse flies outside it. They’re not gone completely; in fact one just took after the woman I love in the middle of her outdoor shower while I was writing this. But now it’s one or two here and there, an annoyance, of course. But at least now we don’t feel like poor Helga in You Only Live Twice, being attacked by a school of piranha.

It’s possible this is just a seasonal shift and that the number of horse flies would have declined anyway. That’s not what we read, however. What we read is that horse flies are active usually until the end of July, and we also know the horse flies are still as active as ever elsewhere on our property. So we choose to chalk this up to a triumph of the Horse Pal and to be grateful it was available, even at $300.

Here are some lessons we’ve learned during our little adventure:

  • The Horse Pal works immediately to begin killing horse flies. When you’re feeling under siege, that can be quite gratifying in and of itself.
  • If your experience is like ours, you will not notice an immediate decrease in the number of horse flies tormenting you and your animals; that will take several weeks of constant use.
  • For reasons I do not yet understand, horse flies are more active when it’s wet. The Horse Pal gets an extraordinary burst of business after one of our afternoon thunderstorms. That’s also apparently why they love to torment Amanda and me when we’re using the outdoor shower. That and all that milky white human flesh laid out for them.
  • The new Horse Pal comes with a crystal clear plastic jar that kills horse flies very quickly. The jar begins clouding up almost immediately, however, and as it clouds up it takes longer for them to die. Regretfully, the Horse Pal does not come equipped with an internal microphone so you can hear the dying flies scream in agony.
  • Once the horse fly becomes trapped in the fabric and mosquito netting, it may take several minutes of “death dance” for her to make it into the jar, but she will not escape, even though the fabric is open below. From this we conclude that horse flies may be vicious and bloodthirsty but are not particularly smart.
  • This last lesson is one we’ve learned not from experience but from the BitingFlies.com web site. Placement of the Horse Pal is critical. You must find a spot that’s reasonably close to where you and those people and mammals you love spend most of their time, where it’s easily visible to horse flies from nearly every direction and accessible to the breeze, and also where curious animals won’t keep messing with it. Once you find that perfect place, we know of no reason that you would need to move it. There’s no evidence that horse flies learn to avoid it, even over generations.

The video runs about two and a half minutes and shows the Horse Pal in action.

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