Keep the Bugs from Bugging You

A picnic is spread out on the table. Cocktails are served. Then, with a buzz, the uninvited guests arrive. Biting mosquitoes, flies, ticks, gnats, and midges can ruin a picnic, a camping trip, or even a whole vacation. Worse, they can carry diseases like West Nile Virus or Lyme Disease. This article explains more about these irritating pests. 

Female Mosquitoes Want Your Blood - So Do Ticks Blood is not the primary food source for mosquitoes. Males and female mosquitoes feed on nectar and other plant juices. In most species, however, the females require a blood meal in order to lay their eggs. Male mosquitoes do not suck blood - only the females do. Mosquito bites generally cause a red-ringed, itching swelling about an hour after the bite occurs. Mosquitoes also can transmit diseases, like West Nile Virus and Malaria. According to the Center for Disease Control, more than 14,000 cases of West Nile Virus have been reported in the U.S. in the past 5 years, resulting in 420 fatalities. Ticks are second only to mosquitoes in their propensity for transmitting diseases to humans. These wingless arachnids live in woods and in grassy meadows, attaching themselves to passing animals (including humans), and sucking their blood. Once they have eaten their fill (which can take a couple of days), ticks will generally drop off the host animal.Ticks transmit such diseases as relapsing fever, Lyme disease, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Thousands of cases are reported each year. 

Insect Repellents: Are they toxic? How can we protect ourselves? Insect repellents can provide protection, but many contain DEET (diethyl-toluamide), a chemical that may cause toxic reactions. A study conducted by Duke University Medical Center pharmacologist, Dr. Abou-Donia Ph.D, reported that the chemical DEET causes brain cell death and behavioral changes in rats after frequent and prolonged use. While the chemical's risks to humans are still being intensely debated, Abou-Donia says his 30 years of research on pesticides' brain effects clearly indicate the need for caution among the general public. Although the risks of DEET-based repellents are a matter of debate, exposure to DEET may cause people to experience memory loss, headache, weakness, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, tremors and shortness of breath, according to Abou-Donia. Such overt symptoms are not seen immediately after use but may manifest themselves months or years after exposure, making a cause-and-effect relationship difficult to establish. 

Essential Plant Oils: Natures Bug Repellents Fortunately, many essential plant oils (steam extracted) provide adequate and safe protection from biting, stinging pests. Repellents based on these oils are gaining popularity with health conscious consumers. Among the oils used in the new repellents are geranium, citronella, cedarwood, lemongrass, pennyroyal, neem, peppermint and eucalyptus. However, essential oil based repellents can vary dramatically in efficacy. 'Consumers should be very careful about which natural repellent they choose,' says David Shaw, CEO of Quantum Inc., which makes a plant-based, DEET free bug spray called Buzz Away Extreme. 'We've looked at the research and some natural repellents are very good, while others are almost completely ineffective.' A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found a soybean and geranium-based product to be the most effective plant-based repellent. USDA studies found this same formula to provide effective protection against mosquitoes for 4-8 hours. In the USDA report, a lemon eucalyptus formula was also found to be effective.  A field study at the University of Guelph confirms that some DEET free bug spray products are more effective than others. One natural formula containing soybean oil and geranium was compared to OFF! Skintastic (an S.C. Johnson DEET formula). Both formulas were effective after one hour, but after three hours, the soybean and geranium formula was still 92% effective - the DEET-based formula only reduced bites by 79%. 

Have Fun Outdoors The use of essential oil-based repellents has another benefit - a pleasant aroma. 'I can't stand the smell of DEET,' says mountaineer and outdoorsman Shane Kavanaugh. 'What's the point of being outdoors when you smell like a chemical factory?' Unlike DEET, plant-based mosquito repellents like Buzz Away have a pleasant aroma. 

Remember to use common sense guidelines when using essential oil based repellents:

  • Re-apply as needed. The repellency is based on the aroma.
  • Use safely. Although essential oils are quite safe, they are powerful.
  • Don't drink them or spray them in your eyes.
  • Most of all, get outdoors and have a good time.

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