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Buzzworthy Insect Repellents

July is the time to be outside in Wisconsin. Weekends are filled with camping, relaxing “up north,” shopping at farmers’ markets, grilling out, spending time on the lakes, going to neighborhood parties and enjoying live music. The one thing that bugs me is, well, the BUGS!

Here’s the gross part: mosquitoes, ticks, black flies, deer flies, and horse flies require animal or human blood as food. Any other bite or sting is a defensive or protective reaction by the insect.

There are more than 50 mosquito species living in Wisconsin. Most mosquitoes are active at dawn and dusk, although some species are “day biters.” Usually, the wound of a mosquito bite is minor. The itching and swelling are allergic responses to the mosquito’s salivary secretions, which vary in intensity depending on the individual. In many regions of the world, mosquitoes may transmit very serious diseases such as malaria and yellow fever. However, the only mosquito-borne diseases seen in Wisconsin are LaCrosse Encephalitis (one case in Wisconsin in 2009), West Nile Virus (one case in Wisconsin in 2009), and heartworm in dogs.

Here in Wisconsin, we do need to keep an eye out for ticks, which are active from late March until early November. Lyme disease is an illness caused by a bacterium transmitted to humans by a tiny tick commonly called the deer tick. For personal protection when working or hiking in tick-infested areas, cover the skin as much as possible by wearing long-sleeve shirts and long pants with the legs tucked into socks. Some bug repellents also repel ticks, but it is good to check the label. A daily tick check after spending time outdoors is the best Lyme disease prevention, because it takes a deer tick 18 to 48 hours of latching before it can transmit Lyme disease.

I will focus on mosquitoes because those buggers are everywhere! Most repellents will help prevent not only mosquito bites, but also most fly bites including sand flies and “no-see-ums.” You can avoid being bitten by making sure you aren’t attracting mosquitoes, being aware of environmental factors that affect bugs, and using insect repellent.

Mosquitoes use carbon dioxide, lactic acid, and heat to find their hosts. When you are more active, you give off more of these attractants. Individuals differ in both their “mosquito magnetism” and the way they react to a bite. Dark colors and some fragrances also attract certain mosquitoes.

Winds above 10 miles per hour force mosquitoes to land and rest; when the winds die down, mosquitoes again become active. Avoid brushy, shaded sites, which have the low light and poor air movement that attracts mosquitoes. If you are outside on a still day, try using a fan to keep mosquitoes grounded. Temperatures below 50ºF prevent mosquitoes from flying, but unfortunately it usually takes three or four killing frosts to end the mosquito season.

Even if you sit on a sunny, windy hillside and wear light-colored clothing, you can still be bitten by a mosquito. Other than covering up with mosquito netting, the only practical way to deal with mosquitoes is to use a repellent spray, cream, lotion or bug band.

For more than 50 years, DEET has been the gold standard in mosquito repellents. Developed by the U.S. Army for use in jungle warfare during World War II, DEET is considered a moderate chemical pesticide. DEET also works as a solvent, dissolving some plastics, synthetic fabrics, leather, and painted or varnished surfaces. DEET is short for N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide. It is absorbed through the skin and passes into the blood, and can lead to vomiting, rashes, drowsiness, headache, and seizures in exposed people. Children appear to be particularly susceptible, and some pediatricians recommend that DEET not be used on children. There is also evidence, published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, that pregnant women who use bug repellents containing DEET have a higher likelihood of giving birth to a child with a common birth defect. Finally, there are serious health concerns about DEET and its effects on the central nervous system.

Canada has now banned products with DEET concentrations over 30%, citing health risks and evidence that increasing the percentage does not do much more to repel insects. Health Canada has also banned two-in-one products which combine sunscreen and DEET, saying they create the potential for people to be exposed to too much DEET.

Most commercial insect repellents contain DEET or Picaridin (KBR 3023), which appears to be less irritating to the skin, but has not been as thoroughly tested as DEET. Willy Street Co-op does not carry either of these chemicals. Some good news is that in addition to petrochemical pesticides, the Environmental Protection Agency now includes catnip oil, citronella, and lemon eucalyptus on its list of active ingredients that work as insect repellent.

A local producer, Four Elements Herbals, makes my favorite insect repellent. It includes witch hazel, an infusion of catnip and lavender and essential oils. It works and it smells good! In research conducted at Iowa State University in 2002, catnip was found to be more effective at repelling mosquitoes than DEET.

Other popular brands of repellents that the Co-op carries are: Badger, Quantum’s Buzz Away, Burt’s Bees Herbal Insect Repellent, and Homs Bite Blocker, all of which are plant-based. We also carry an essential oil infused wrist “bug band” and a variety of bug-repelling candles.

Badger brand makes an “Anti Bug Balm” in a stick, spray and sunscreen/insect repellent combination. These products have a “green light” rating on the popular Environmental Working Group’s Cosmetic Safety Database. Homs Bite Blocker has been avery popular choice for the last few years. It contains a special combination of soybean, geranium, and coconut oils. Studies conducted at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, revealed that Bite Blocker gave more than 97% protection against mosquitoes that cause yellow fever in field conditions, even three-and-a-half hours after application. Always read the labels and apply as directed.

Neem oil is an ingredient in many traditional Ayurvedic remedies, and in India, the neem tree is called “the village pharmacy.” A report published in the Journal of the American Mosquito Control Association pointed out a concentration of just 2% neem oil provided 100% protection from many species of mosquito for 12 hours.

You can easily make your own bug repellent with a variety of ingredients from the Co-op. Essential oils with insect-repelling properties include: citronella, lemon eucalyptus, catnip, cinnamon, castor, rosemary, lemongrass, cedar, peppermint, clove, geranium and possibly others. To make a spray, add 10 to 25 drops total of essential oils to 2 tablespoons of a carrier such as witch hazel, glycerin or a plain oil (like sweet almond oil or olive oil). You can add a tablespoon of aloe vera for a gel consistency. Essential oils may irritate the skin so test a small area first, and reapply every hour or so for best protection.

You can prevent mosquitoes from infesting your yard by getting rid of any standing water in the area including sandboxes and old tires. You can also plop mosquito dunks—bacteria tablets that are safe to us and to birds but are toxic to mosquito larvae—into small ponds and birdbaths. Planting mosquito-repelling plants like lemon balm, catnip, basil and lemon geraniums around outdoor sitting areas and encouraging mosquito predators like bats and dragonflies can help reduce mosquito populations. Always check with your medical provider before using or making an insect repellent, especially if you are pregnant, nursing, or have a medical condition.

A little bit of planning and a natural insect repellent from the Co-op will keep the bugs from bugging you. Enjoy your summer!