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Getting Teed Off by Gnats : Griffith Park: The cleaner river is blamed for infestation of flies that’s taking fun out of golf, cycling, jogging, baseball.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Few golfers have pushed the fashion envelope beyond plaid pants. Until now.

At the two Griffith Park golf courses, jungle wear has become de rigueur , with many morning duffers donning mosquito-net hoods before teeing off. The latest accessory has little to do with looks--obviously--and everything to do with golf. And gnats. Which don’t seem to mix.

“Could you imagine trying to make a nice shot with 20 flies going up your nose?” asked Kevin Regan, pest-control adviser for the city Recreation and Parks Department.

To deal with the most massive infestation of so-called buffalo gnats in Los Angeles--believed caused by a cleaner Los Angeles River--serious golfers have come up with the novel remedy. And at $3.99 apiece, the Griffith Park Golf Shop has done decent business, moving 500 of the white headdresses in three months.

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Golf course supervisors know of only one other way to combat the buzzing black clouds. “Smoking a cigar,” said Ralph Hyde, a course supervisor. “Cigarettes don’t work.”

The tiny insects, also known as black flies, are rising out of a 20-mile stretch of the L.A. River, from about Studio City to Elysian Park, in numbers never before seen--or swatted at or swallowed.

Just about anyone within a mile or so of the river who has cause to leave the house in the morning or evening is suffering--even Dodgers.

An enterprising baseball fan and Avon saleswoman turned a few miserable Dodger players on to a skin conditioner called Skin So Soft, known for years in outdoor circles as an exceptional insect repellent with a lovely scent.

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The club was reportedly so impressed that trainers bought the stuff.

Several joggers and cyclists circling Griffith Park one recent evening used the swatting-and-spitting method. Others strapped on surgical masks to avoid an unintentional after-dinner snack.

And as though a mouthful of insects wasn’t bad enough, the insects bite back.

Male flies spend their two or three days of life harmlessly, if obnoxiously, hunting for and eating pollen, according to Regan, but the females prefer blood.

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“The females have to feed on blood before they can return to the river and deposit their eggs,” he said.

Known to scientists as simuliidae simulius , the insects appear to be hatching in the greatest numbers along a stretch of the river that has a natural, rock-covered bottom, rather than concrete.

The larvae attach themselves to river rocks before floating to the surface via air bubbles, drying themselves off and venturing off in search of food.

The theory scientists are working with to explain the extreme outbreak is an ironic one: more than a decade spent cleaning up reclaimed water from treatment plants may be aiding the hatch. The insects thrive on well-aerated, clean and fast-moving water.

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“We are making a black fly habitat,” said Mike Mullin, a water biologist with the city Environmental Monitoring Division.

Also, in many summers past, the river was dry this time of year.

The insects love it now.

Prompted in part by irate golfers demanding their greens fees back, officials are formulating a battle plan.

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The Southeast Mosquito Abatement District is planning a program in which naturally occurring bacteria that kill the insects in the larval stage would be injected into the stream. The district is working with the mayor’s office to secure about $50,000 for the program.

The bacteria could be introduced as soon as Friday, according to abatement district spokeswoman LuAnn Munns, but it would likely be two weeks or so before the air begins to clear.

In the meantime, riverside residents will have to rely on personal ingenuity to repel the pests.

Golfer John Michael--not the jungle-net hood type--took to pulling his black T-shirt over his face and making semi-blind chip shots at the Griffith Park course.

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“I wore a blue shirt the other day and could see right through,” he said.


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