Not that I came to Amazonian Ecuador this winter in search of gruesome tropical parasites, but might as well be known for something, eh? And, honestly, I sort of wanted a bot fly—for bragging rights at least.
I’d mentioned this desire to one of my friends at home before traveling to Ecuador, back in early January. He had contracted a bot fly a few years ago while birding in Central America and promptly sent me a photo of it displayed against a ruler after being surgically removed from his scalp: an opaque, quarter-inch-long grub, probably several weeks old (a mere adolescent). “It was a hit at the doctor’s office,” he told me, though apparently the American doctor had been a bit intimidated at first, having never seen one before. The photo was labeled “Bernie Bot.”
Yes, I replied. I want one!
The bot fly is one of nature’s most cruelly fascinating creatures. An adult fly captures a mosquito in midair, lays an egg on it, and lets it go. When the mosquito subsequently bites you, the fly’s egg falls on to your skin, where the warmth of your body heat causes it to hatch. A tiny larva then burrows into your flesh, where, if left unmolested, it will spend the next eight weeks growing into a fearsomely spiny, inch-long maggot, breathing through a tube and feasting on the tissue just under your skin before emerging to pupate into an adult fly.
I’ve always believed that you ain’t a real tropical birder until you’ve hosted a bot fly; just ask any neotropical ornithologist—they’ve probably survived a first-hand experience. Bot flies are widespread in the New World tropics, lurking in the kinds of wild places birders like to visit. At Tiputini Biodiversity Station, where I have spent the past two months working on a project with Wedge-billed Woodcreepers, researchers have adopted a philosophical attitude toward such parasites. If, like one ornithologist here, you happen to get 13 bot flies at once, well, that’s nature.
So, when, 15 days after I arrived in Ecuador, I noticed a mosquito bite on my back that seemed to be getting bigger, not smaller, I asked the veterans to take a look. Five of us crowded into a cluttered room in Tiputini’s laboratory, sweating in the heat and humidity, and someone trained a headlamp on my back.
“Oh, I can see it moving, even without a hand lens!” they quickly exclaimed. The others leaned in closer.
“Ew, that is incredibly gross.”
“How’s it feel to be a father?”
Every couple of minutes, the bot fly extended its breathing tube, which could be seen wiggling around at the surface of my skin. I was advised to wait a few days before extracting it since the larva might be easier to remove once it grew a bit bigger.
That gave me plenty of time to weigh my options. It seems like nobody can agree on the best way to extract a bot fly, though there are a few generally accepted methods, none of which involve a doctor (walk into an average North American physician’s office with a bot fly and they’re likely to 1) freak out and 2) attack you with a scalpel).
Since a bot fly larva is covered with recurved spines, it’s best to suffocate it before trying to squeeze it out. You can cover it with superglue, strap a bottle cap full of Vaseline over it, or take a really long bath. You can tape a piece of raw meat over the bot fly and hope it burrows upward in search of air. Or you can try blowing endless cigarette smoke over it until the larva dies.
I was tempted to try the meat method, but a few people told me it doesn’t work very well (hard to get a tight enough seal). Same with the cigarette smoke—whoever does the blowing must have lungs of iron and a good supply of cigarettes because it takes a long time to sufficiently poison the larva. So I settled on superglue, the same stuff we use to assemble telemetry transmitters for woodcreepers.
Meanwhile, I named my new friend Tiny Tim and introduced him to everyone at the station, including a group of incredulous study abroad students. I felt a certain attachment to Tiny Tim; we went everywhere together. Every time I lifted my shirt, he’d pop out his breathing tube to say hello, which was particularly popular at the dinner table.
As the days passed, Tiny Tim grew bigger, stronger, and more painful. When he woke me at 2am one night with a vigorous bout of wriggling (like a hot needle stabbing me in the back), I knew it was time to murder my friend.
Tiny Tim visibly writhed in panic the next day as he was covered in superglue. Within a few hours I could no longer feel his occasional twitches, and, while a small crowd watched in Tiputini’s lab before dinner, a primate researcher put a thumb on either side of his hole, just below my shoulder blade, and squeezed. Within a couple of minutes I was holding a vial of alcohol containing Tiny Tim’s body—a nice souvenir from my season in the Amazon—and sported a purple Hello Kitty band aid on my back.
We later removed a bot fly from another researcher at Tiputini. Unlike Tiny Tim, this one took two rounds of superglue and one of Vaseline to properly suffocate. When finally squeezed out, it let loose with a pop, launched into space, and landed like a wet noodle on someone’s arm, to the amusement of all onlookers.
If you’re ever lucky enough to contract a bot fly, here’s what I think you should do: Find a glass Coke bottle, heat it up except for the neck, and position the opening over your parasite; then throw ice water over the bottle—the difference in temperature will create an instant vacuum which should suck the bot fly larva inside. If it works, let me know!