Testing, Testing: Natural Mosquito Repellents Posted by: Aaron Stearns | 0 Comments
Just off the campus of Sewanee, the University of the South, on the rural Cumberland plateau in South-central Tennessee, there is a peculiar gaggle of old 19th century houses collectively named The Assembly. The houses are diverse in personality, each with it’s own name, lining a crooked lane like snaggle teeth behind gated lips. The reason that this Assembly exists is the ubiquitous midge, a modern nuisance in the hot country and, in forgotten times, the most dangerous animal on the continent. When our ancestors built the Assembly, they needed Summer homes to flee to, in peril of the terrible mosquito and its malarial nature.
Even rich people got sick from malaria back then.
The houses remain, except they now serve as party houses for wealthy Sewanee students and their families. The American mosquito, likewise, is not the same, stripped of its title as Public Enemy No. 1. In most parts, they are an insufferable nuisance, a boost to the chemical-candle-to-ward-off-insects industry, but they usually will not, fingers-crossed, kill you.
Still, they make porch time miserable, and that is unforgivable. Not to mention their taking of your hard-earned blood, which is, on principle, a crime punishable by death. For some, and then more these days, the popular option of dousing yourself in DEET so that not even a mosquito could find your body habitable is less desirable, and folks are seeking a more natural way to repel the hateful midge.
What follows is a scientifically conducted, careful and methodical study of natural mosquito repellents.
The first and best repellant I know of is to have bitter blood. Everyone knows the familiar scenario in which Person A is being brutalized by mosquito nicks while Person B goes unnoticed on the same porch. The usual observation would be that Person A is too sweet and delicious. Why else would mosquitoes, who rarely take more than they need, keep coming back for more? For Person A, the classic Southern remedy would be to eat more onions and garlic and meditate on something really aggravating or embittering. Then, mosquitoes will be turned off by Person A’s abrasive blood.
Mosquitoes have never liked me much, so I must infer than I am not sweet-blooded. To test this remedy, I sat on my porch and ate raw cane sugar while downing a box of pink wine, and flirted with anyone and everything, including neighborhood dog walkers. I received 20-30 bites in 30 minutes, an average rate. Results were inconclusive, and it’s arguable that a person can’t easily change his or her blood flavor or disposition. Some apples are just sour.
My first repellant came from a farmer friend, Robert of Willow Springs Market Garden. As a farmer, Robert is locked in a hard-fought battle with a good portion of the insect kingdom, and on principle, he only uses natural methods to ruin them. He has a ready-made natural potion for warding off mosquitoes, so I thought I’d give it a try first. The mixture consists of soybean oil, citronella, thyme, rosemary, lemongrass, peppermint and eucalyptus.
I was surprised by how much like normal bug spray it felt. The same chemical thickness, the same peculiar texture. I was skeptical at first, since this brew consists mostly of plant smells, which assuredly don’t repel mosquitos. I sprayed my bare skin, rubbed it in, and sat on my front porch at dusk. In a few minutes, the winged wolves came calling, but they kept a respectful distance. I still had a few bites, particularly as sweat created repellant runoff, but while it stayed on the skin, it worked. Regular reapplication was needed. Less than 10 bites in half an hour. Not bad, and as natural in ingredients as it gets.
The most popular form of general mosquito repellant (vs. individual repellant) are candles and flame. Usually, the candles are said to work because they have some chemical (artificial or natural) that will repel bugs. We’ve all burned these in the back yard, and I think we can all say that the buffet was no less attended than usual. What I do find interesting is this: fire may also work as a distraction. Mosquitos, some speculate, find mammals by following streams of carbon dioxide to their source, which is usually a warm-blooded respirator. Fire, however, also produces streams of carbon dioxide, so the science would have it that lighting a fire should attract mosquitoes to the wrong source and away from you.
My scientific response is that, unless you and your friends are standing really far from the candle, maybe hanging out in a crawl space, this won’t help you at all. It’s actually kind of stupid, if you think about it, to light a bunch of candles and stand right next to them, thereby potentially doubling the output of CO2 in the general area and inviting the extended midge family to really indulge on all of you.
Some say that mosquitos use vision to find victims, and they typically look for dark color. Foliage, deer hide, Black Sabbath shirts. So, to naturally take yourself out of the game, just do the following: wear white jean jackets, bathroom towel skirts, and keep your skin a blinding pale. I was only able to test some of this theory. My skin, unfortunately, boasts a handsome olive/yellow complexion, and my hair is practically black, so I couldn’t hide my swarthiness from the killers. And they aren’t really biting my shirts or shorts, so they still found my skin. Failure.
DRESS LIKE IT’S WINTER:
Another clothes-based remedy requires wearing long sleeve shirts and pants. I guess this smart idea is based on the point that mosquitos can’t bite your skin if you’ve covered it up.
Oh sure. Yeah we’ll do that. I know that’s what farm workers do for protection from the sun, but who else would want to protect themselves from the sun? Pale people? Pale people are genetically at a disadvantage, which I don’t mean personally, but everyone knows that tan people are super hot. Who would want to protect themselves from sun exposure and bronzing and skin cancer, just to avoid mosquitos? Am I being insensitive enough? It’s so hot outside! Well, I’ll take the bug bites and keep my sexy summer look, thank you.
A few years ago, I went camping in the Ozarks with some friends, early summer, and my friend adorned himself in long pants, a long-sleeve shirt, even tucked his pants into his socks, mostly to protect himself from ticks and Lyme disease. I could not be so hindered. How would my thighs breathe? What if I felt too hot and sweaty? By the end of the day, I had approximately one thousand more ticks on my body than he did, but my hike costume was infinitely more sporty. Price to pay for freedom.
JUST GIVE UP. IT’S GENETIC:
After all this testing, my favorite remedy may be resignation. There is a very interesting article that explores the role genetics, bacteria, and evolution play in mosquitos’ attraction to certain people. It is, I might add, much more helpful than this article. Despite the fact that mosquitos are the most dangerous organism in history and on earth, very little research has been done on why, chemically speaking, mosquitos like “me.”
The simple research suggests this: mosquitos have been killing us for hundreds of thousands of years, particularly as children via malaria, thus no organism has influenced our evolution more than the malaria parasite. Lineages who survived in these environments carried something inside of them that mosquitos found less drawing, and they were able to survive. Africans, for example, who have lived for millennia in a malarial environment probably evolved with less of that mosquito je ne sais quoi than Europeans, who have had relatively lower exposure to the midge diseases, i.e., fewer opportunities to evolve alongside the little buggers and weed the bad stuff out.
The something, research speculates, is potentially odor-based. There are microbes on your skin that mosquitos may or may not find enticing. If you have the right combination of bacteria, bad news for you: mosquitos will plague your existence. Some research has been done that suggests that mosquitoes have distinct preferences for different types of body odor, which is chiefly inspired by the millions of bacteria enjoying your epidermal real estate. Each person has a different bacterial profile, and, short of bleaching your skin to remove all bacteria and very likely invite some horrible infection to lay waste to you, you’re stuck with what you got.
Perhaps resignation is the most reasonable attitude. There are, after all, more than 3,000 species of mosquitoes, each with its own profile and preference. If you’re just trying to protect yourself from aggravating itches, I’d suggest sucking it up and (a) not sitting on your front porch at dusk or (b) putting pants on instead of bikini bottoms. People will still find your personality sexy. Next, just consider your luck: if you are not worried about contracting malaria, the load you bear is relatively light. Most living people, and certainly all of humanity’s ancestors, would find a world not plagued by fear of mosquito bites a bright world indeed. Enjoy it, and slather essential oils on your skin just for the fun of it. Meanwhile, maybe preserve your mortal existence a little longer by not bombing yourself in chemical clouds.
Sam Hedges was born in Little Rock, Arkansas and attended the University of the South. He is the Director of Operations for the Arkansas Local Food Network. He collects food and then eats it.
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