Fifteen minutes after sitting out on a friend’s porch during dusk and my legs look like I have contracted the plague. Red, half dollar sized blotches cover my skin and begin to itch so badly I am tempted to bathe in a bucket of hydrocortisone cream.
What could have possibly caused this sudden case of Mad Polka-Dots? An acute and freak recurrence of chicken pox? An allergy to shellfish? Witch’s hex? Nope, just a reaction the common and ever-irritating mosquito. This is the time of year that the female mosquitoes search out their blood meals that will allow them to lay their eggs and produce even more aggravating, disease-carrying spawn.
In a war where human is pitted against insect, it is good to know your enemy. Mosquitoes, part of the family Culicidae have been around for nigh on 170 million years, and have during that time an arsenal of sensory weapons designed to find warm blooded creatures and feed on their blood. Their tiny heads contain sensory organs that are able to detect the chemicals in sweat and the carbon dioxide and lactic acid expelled during respiration from up to 100 feet away.
Mosquitoes are also able to pick out victims that are warm-blooded by zeroing in on heat variations in their environments. Studies have shown that certain people are at greater risk for mosquito attack, particularly those that produce and excess amount of uric and lactic acids, high concentrations of cholesterol, steroids, and women who are pregnant (as they exhale more CO2).
As if the maddening, red welts left by these insects were not bad enough, mosquitoes are vectors for a number of diseases, including malaria and West Nile virus. Scratching bites can cause infections and tissue damage. So, what can you do to avoid sickness and the infuriating buzz of these little pests on your next summer outing? First, there is the chemical option. DEET has been the go-to repellent since 1957, and works by jamming the bug’s aforementioned sensory apparatuses.
Most commercial formulas contain between 10-30% DEET. Look for products with at least 23% of the chemical in the mixture. If you would prefer a less odorous, lighter alternative, opt for picaridin as contained in Cutter Advanced. Avon’s Skin So Soft uses IR3535 and is combined with sunscreen to keep your skin safe from UV rays and insect assault. Newly approved by the EPA in 2006, metofluthrin can be worn or bought to hang in a paper strip. If sprays are not your style, clothing impregnated with permethrin may offer relief from the summer swarms.
For those leery of chemicals, there are a few more natural alternatives to help drive away mosquitoes. Wearing or treating clothing with essential oils such as citronella, peppermint, geranium, cedar, lemongrass and some soybean-based repellents can keep the biting at bay for up to 1.5 hours. Lemon eucalyptus has been shown to work as effectively as similar concentrations of DEET. Although studies are not conclusive, there is some evidence that B1 patches and supplements may produce an odor that female mosquitoes steer away from and can be found under the brand name Don’t Bite Me in most drugstores.
With mosquitoes, an effective offense is a good defense. Make certain that your living space is free of standing water, clogged gutters, or open garbage cans. Traps can be set to lure and kill the insects and reduce their numbers in your yard. Planting citronella, catnip, lemongrass, lavendar, cloves, garlic or eucalyptus will discourage the bugs from infiltrating a garden. Stocking a pond with mosquito fish that eat eggs and larvae can eliminate the pests at the beginning of their life cycle and before they become airborne. Encouraging bats by building roosting boxes may encourage the insect-eaters to make a dent in your area’s mosquito population.
Now, armed with some knowledge and no small arsenal of chemicals (both natural and otherwise) we will hopefully be able to minimize our exposure to the exasperation of bug season. You can bet I’ll be smelling of peppermint and citronella until winter.