July 01, 2018

When a friend of mine returned from Canada recently, no one asked how many fish he and his buddies had caught. Instead, they wanted to know what happened.

My friend’s face looked like a pizza, and he sported a dozen purple knots on the back of his neck. His hands were peppered with little scabs that covered old puncture wounds. “I’ve never seen black flies that bad in my life,” he said, “and I’ve been going up there for years.”

Humidity, temperature, body odor and breathing rate and volume are factors that determine how vicious biting insects can be. One thing is certain: When black flies, mosquitoes, no-see-ums, gnats, chiggers, ticks and deer flies go all out, they can destroy an outdoor experience whether you’re hunting, fishing, camping or cooking dinner on the patio grill at home.

There are tactics to disarm bloodthirsty bugs. Avoid setting up camp near areas of stagnant water, prime breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Female mosquitoes need blood meals to nourish eggs which they deposit—in amounts up to 100—after biting someone. A female (only the females bite—actually stab) can live for two months and deposit up to 4,400 eggs if she finds enough victims. She needs only 90 seconds to gorge herself with blood.

To eliminate mosquitoes, eliminate their habitat where possible. A dog’s water dish, child’s plastic swimming pool, even the backyard bird bath are prime mosquito-breeding grounds.

When camping, set up your camp in a breezy area. If insects are really bad, consider building a fire upwind and let it “smoke out” the campsite in evening hours when the bugs can be especially annoying. Also avoid tents without sewn-in floors and fine-mesh netting on windows and doors.

Wear loose-fitting clothing that is light in color and avoid the use of aftershave lotions, hair sprays, perfumes and colognes. Biting insects home in on victims through sensory perception; in particular, the exhalation of carbon dioxide draws them. Perhaps to a black fly or mosquito, a freshly-bathed camper smells as good as a Big Mac and Fries to a busload of hungry high-school wrestlers.

Repellents seem to be the best way to jam a biting insect’s sensors, but they don’t always work for some victims and may not work at all for a few.

Many years ago, I planned a one-week camping trip to northern Ontario in early June with my young family. I tossed a potato bug sprayer and pint container of Malathion in the car trunk because I heard it would kill black flies, which could be troublesome. They were. Parks people hadn’t gotten around to spraying yet, and so they gave me permission to do so around our campsite. I sprayed the whole pint of insecticide to no avail. On the second day of our trip, my wife showed me four black fly hits on our infant daughter. A fresh one on her forehead trickled blood. We packed up and went home.

What does repel biting insects? The U.S. government began testing during World War II to find out because malaria and yellow fever were killing our soldiers in the tropics. By 1951, the government had tested 11,000 compounds. A few, such as oil of citronella, were effective. Most, however, were not.

Researchers soon discovered DEET (N.N-Diethy-meta-toluamide) and by 1957 it became available to consumers through commercial products. It’s still the main ingredient in use today by many repellent manufacturers with varying concentrations to 100 percent. Government testing shows that—depending upon concentration—DEET will repel both deer ticks and mosquitoes for periods lasting from two to 12 hours.

How often you should apply to your skin at any one time depends upon your own body chemistry and how voracious insects are. The amount you apply is less important than the level of DEET the product contains. One of the myths surrounding DEET is that it causes cancer. Current research, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, does not support this assertion.

For centuries mankind has had to battle biting and stinging insects. Mosquitoes in particular have been both a nuisance and a deadly enemy. More than 3,000 species exist around the world (150 or more in the U.S. alone) in every kind of climate except permanent ice pack and extreme desert regions. In wet areas of the Deep South, mosquito populations can be as high as 5,000 per square foot.

For more information about Lyme disease and ticks, which are increasing alarmingly in Michigan and elsewhere, see my article, “A Ticking Time Bomb,” in the June 2017 issue of Woods-N-Water News.

Mud packs and body rubs with grease and tallow were used by our ancestors to ward off biting insects. Others ate huge quantities of garlic (some still do; others load up with Vitamin B) and placed various herbs on their floors. Still others concocted homestyle remedies of oil of citronella, pine oil, gum camphor, stearic acid and oil of pennyroyal. Native Americans relied upon smoke fires from green plants and the placing of green ferns near shelters because the plants are a natural source of citronella oil.

Luckily I don’t often need a repellent because I don’t like to use the oils, sprays, lotions, sticks and towelettes—DEET-based or not—so readily available today. Many are oily, seem to make me sweat, and carry a lingering odor. But when, for whatever reason, I’m having a bad mosquito day, I’m more than happy to dose myself with Off! Repel, Cutters, Ben’s 100 or any of the other more than 100 DEET-based products made by 30 companies and registered with the EPA. After all, now that we know that mosquitoes can carry the deadly West Nile Virus, why take chances?

And, thanks to the tick explosion (especially in the western Upper Peninsula) I’m thinking about applying DEET to my bare legs before putting on my bird-hunting pants this fall.