Dear Sybil, I’m one of those poor blondes who seem to attract every kind of bite at the beach, and none of them are from a handsome lifeguard! It’s only July, and I’m covered in mosquito bites and maybe some other gnat, blackfly, chigger, and “no-see-ums” too. HELP!!! HELP!!!!!!!!!!!!, Sincerely, Itchy.
Dear Sincerely Itchy…. (oops! Sorry!) …just Itchy! You’ve come to the right place! Mummie isn’t a blonde, but there’s something in my chemistry that has always made me a tasty treat for the world’s predators, especially among the six-legged set! If only I had as many admirers among the older, doddering nobility of minor European principalities and duchies. They could nibble on me as much as they liked, and I could have as many jewels as Madame Arnfelt in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC or Aunt Alicia in GIGI, and half the itching! But no! I’ve ended up being one of those poor girls at the barbecue who loses a pint of blood at the relish tray. I will stand in a group of partiers and everyone will be cool and collected, but I’ll be so covered with mosquitoes, it’ll look like someone clubbed me with the pepper grinder! When I was young, my grandparents actually used me as a bug attractor at their croquet picnics…my job was to stand on a pedestal with two flashlights and be a living target for every mosquito within 300 yards of the buffet tables. I was to use the flashlights to signal them in for a safe landing…on me! I got a quarter an hour. If only we had known back then some of the science and the easier remedies for mosquitoes and their cohorts! Well, we do now, and I for one am no longer anemic from June through the end of September thanks to these tried and true tricks!
1) Mosquitoes are attracted to the carbon dioxide we exhale, to the warmth of our bodies, to the smell of various soaps and perfumes, and to dark clothing…. Be sure to dress in very light colors or preferably white clothes! Who would have thought that the chicest fashion choice might also save your skin??...literally!. Although many experts will suggest eating garlic or drinking apple cider vinegar in quantities for days before a party, I find that that is just too extreme. Who wants to time themselves to sweat out “bug repellant”? Ridiculous! BUT! The evidence for using fragrance as a weapon is overwhelming, but it has to be the right fragrances!….. there are scores of stories of people mixing a few drops of essential oils like citronella, citrus and mint, eucalyptus, lemongrass, witch hazel, or my very favorites, lavender or vanilla extract in a small spray bottle of water. Tea tree or neem oil will also work beautifully. Spray yourself and your clothes paying particular attention to your “pulse points” (behind your ears, around your throat, underarms, wrists, inside of elbows, groin area, back of knees, and ankles). Most folks love the way any of these concoctions smell and are glad to use generously after the shower. You can also mist your bedclothes with any of them to keep all insects away from you just in case there’s a small hole in that screen at the rented beach cottage! If you don’t have access to a health food or a “new age” notions store, raid your laundry room! Most dryer sheets, slightly moistened and rubbed lightly but thoroughly all over the body and face will chase all bugs away, including gnats and blackflies. Avon’s Skin So Soft still is one of the great “accidental” double-use product stories of all time! Who would have thought that an “affordable” skin moisturizer sold by a door-to-door vender could turn into one of the best insect repellents as well?...and now it comes in the “grease-free” formula too!
2) Environmentally, you can start the battle by removing any standing water in your garden/patio area. Look carefully! Not just in the birdbath or the splash pool that the kids accidentally punctured and have left deflated in back of the tool shed for two months! Mosquitoes will thrive in a dog dish under the porch or tossed aside garbage can lid that’s too cracked to still use. Before we started spraying the world indiscriminately and killed everything, (thank you Rachel Carson!) dragonflies, frogs, toads, and bats were our biggest allies against all sorts of harmful insects, especially mosquitoes. Our eco-friends’ numbers have been decimated by local community boards who believe that “nuking the neighborhood” is the most expedient choice. Sadly, all we’re learning is that mosquitoes happen to be among the first species to adapt to and recover from chemical onslaughts, while their enemies may be seriously endangered afterwards, and slow to recover. The more technologically advanced we humans become, the more we learn that the best strategy against our insect-foes in the natural world is using nature itself. Let’s try to encourage the return of a wider diversity of wildlife out at the beach and in the countryside. It may sound crazy, but gardening centers and the internet are now selling special “bat boxes” which can be put up in the eaves of your house or garage, or in the tree outside your window to bring a little Bela Lugosi touch to your garden! Bats are shy and of no danger to humans, but they rain havoc on mosquitoes! Imagine a chic little Electrolux vacuum cleaner swooping around at dusk sucking up hundreds of gnats, flies, mosquitoes…all the Insect-World’s vampires that see YOU as Miss Mina with no crucifix around your neck!! Ironic, isn’t it, that a bat in your garden might be the Fearless Vampire Killer that saves YOU from destruction!?
3) There are a few more tricks for your garden/patio area that will help greatly. Citronella candles; the kind that come in little tin buckets for the industrial-minded, or in attractive glass holders like they use to give away at Sunoco stations in the 1950s are what grandma counted on! And she was oh so right! Place a few of these around the perimeter of your eating area. They create a wall of confusion and exclusion to the bug-crowd! No one wants in!!! And have you got a green thumb…or, um, whatever? Use it! If you’ve got a garden, plant it with marigolds, ageratums, lavender, lemon balm, lemon thyme, pennyroyal, bee balm, catnip, citronella grass, basil, sage and rosemary! All are good choices to grow in pots or beds….. but be careful! Don’t assume that you can also rub flowers or leaves on your skin directly as a repellant. Some of these are so powerful that they can actually cause irritation. Check online about their particular qualities. Better to let them just stand as beautiful and powerful sentries!! Of course the herbs are perfectly safe, and terrific for picking for recipes while they deter the pests! And if you’re barbecuing, a bundle of rosemary or sage can be tossed right on the coals to help flavor grilled food and play havoc with winged intruders! As your friends gather round the grill to smell your latest Food Network find, the Bug-Luftwaffe will be fleeing in droves!
4) Lastly, I have heard of a couple of other strange insect repelling devices that I have mixed feelings about. A zip-lock clear luncheon bag filled with water and some flakes of tin foil or a couple of pennies hung in a doorway?!?! It sounds too strange to be real, but I have actually seen it work! Mostly for flies though. And it has to be in a very well lit area for the effect of the sparkling water and metal to catch and disturb the eyes of the insects…. But try it yourself and see! One thing I will say for it, it doesn’t attract the insects to you! On the other hand there are the homemade CO2 soda bottle insect-traps made with water or ginger ale, sugar, yeast, etc, etc, etc…..yes!! They work, although they’re vile to look at as they begin to fill up and turn black with thousands of mosquitoes and every other species of bug in the surrounding 200’. But in my opinion, they’re attracting more insects to your patio area than would have been there to begin with. They remind me of budget versions of the highly expensive and science-fictiony ultra-violet “zappers” of the 70s that you could pay a fortune for at the garden center, and then hoist into a tree near the house. Did they annihilate any winged miscreant who wandered into their wiry web of manmade lightening? Oh yes!...and I suppose there are those in the backwoods who got “hours of enjoyment” watching the proceedings. But the racket and the flashing was certainly distracting from any normal conversation….. and again, the ultra-violet bulbs were designed to bring the victims, not repel them! Yes, it’s true, Noah Snurd of Poke-A-Ma-Hola, Arkansas was paying his own utility bill doing the community-at-large a favor by killing vast numbers of pests, but he was actually importing them from miles around! I had a sophisticated friend in the Hamptons who bought four of those “zappers” when they first came out! He installed them in the corners of his flagstoned terrace overlooking the ocean for an evening banquet. There was caviar and champagne, laughter and music, gossip and flirting…..and then… the screaming! The AWFUL SCREAMING! Insects by the hundreds began to hurl themselves into those aluminum faux-pagoda lanterns and either burst into flame or explode into cindered shrapnel that landed in people’s crab ceviches…. I made the mistake of standing too close to one of them in my white floor length Norma Kamali, and the static charge turned me into the Bride of Frankenstein! Once we were taken to triage areas to assess our injuries, we realized that our host may have created a rare entomological vortex by concentrating four, count’em FOUR of those insect crematoriums on one single patio!!….. National Geographic, Wild Kingdom, and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not all wanted to bid for exclusive rights for the “true story”……Variety said it best!...HAMPTONS HIDE-AWAY HELL FOR HOY-POLLOI!! (It took me two weeks to get my hair back into its naturally cute little page-boy!)
So there you have it. I’ve done it all! Seen it all! Been eaten by it all! If I’m not an expert by now, who is? Take any of this advice, and save yourself from the mosquito marauders! As for me?....I should have done those old OFF commercials and gotten paid for sticking my arm into those terrariums full of mosquitoes for TV. I could have made a fortune!…. Or at least more than a quarter an hour! Xoxoxo! Sybil.
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