I will never forget what a botfly is!

from Maria Goller

I was in Belize for a month volunteering at a raptor migration station. We spent 8 hours a day planted on a soccer field, in the humid heat, being bitten by sandflies and aggressive ants, counting migrating raptors. It was Punta Gorda, not Vera Cruz, and the small number of hawks every day (a good day had about 100) was rather discouraging. Most of the raptors we saw were the black vultures that live in the area. They are amazing creatures, but they do not migrate and were not what we were hoping to see. So, yes, rather discouraging.

A red brocket (aka crazy deer, aka (Mazama americana)

After ten days of this, I used my three days off to explore Cockscomb Wildlife Preserve. It was great. There were LOTS of birds that I had never seen before, including two species of manakin. Male manakins bounce around between perches and make sounds like firecrackers, so they’re extremely fun to watch. I also saw a strange-looking deer, at least by my standards.

I took a lot of photos of all sorts of interesting birds (like this photo of an Aracari). The tropics truly are a birdwatcher’s paradise!

An collared aracari (Pteroglossus torquatus)

After my trip, I went back to the soccer field and my raptor watch duties. I felt fine for about eight or nine days. On the tenth morning, I felt a little strange. Kind of feverish. And my head was itching a lot. Over the next few days, I began feeling sick. Nauseated. Tired. The itchy spots in my head had turned into burning, hurting lumps. I had no idea what was going on.

Luckily for me, one of the founders of the Belize Raptor Research Institute was visiting from California. He immediately knew what was happening.

‘You have botflies!’ he declared with a grin. The rest of the staff, all Belizean, matched his expression. I had no idea what he was talking about. My confused expression made them laugh. It turns out that I had been in the forest during peak botfly season, and leaving your hat outside of your hammock is an invitation for botfly tenants to move in. Whoops. I asked the Belizeans why they hadn’t warned me, and they brushed off my question with, ‘if you had known, you wouldn’t have gone to Cockscomb.’ They didn’t know me very well!

Anyway, the next few days were uncomfortable. Botflies lay their eggs on your skin (or in your hat!) and the larvae burrow into your flesh. They then wait around, eating you from the inside, and making your life unpleasant, until they grow large enough. If you leave them there, eventually they will come to the surface of your skin and fly away. I did not want to wait that long. So the others put globs of super glue on the breathing holes to suffocate the botflies. It takes about 24 hours to kill ‘em. That period is the most unpleasant because the larvae start panicking and “bite” a lot. I was very distracted at dinner that night! The next day, one of the Belizeans peeled the glue off and used his fingernails to pop my unwanted guests out of my head. Some of the botflies squirted across the room. All of the raptor staff were enthralled and stood around watching the entire operation. In total, I had seven botflies in my head.

It was quite the experience. It was my initiation into rainforest life and, I was told, the mark of a true tropical field biologist. I also get to gross people out with the tale. So I’m glad it happened. I really am. It just never has to happen again… I will definitely never forget what a botfly is!

Read more about botflies on Wikipedia. And...if you dare open this can of worms (so to speak) a YouTube botfly extraction.