A monthly column in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Don’t Let the Bugs Win!

What works and what doesn’t in the war against bugs?

Come May and June, it only takes a few minutes outside until you’re swatting those pesky bugs.

And along with this year’s early bug season comes the perennial discussion: What works against them? What doesn’t?

Well, I’m far from an expert on this, but I do occasionally use myself as an insect test lab and I check with folks to see what’s hot and what’s not.

Dr. Alan T. Eaton, the entomology specialist for the UNH Cooperative Extension, has put a lot of thought into products that attempt to offer relief from pesky insects.

While many describe themselves as insect repellents, that’s not exactly what they do, according to Eaton. They actually block receptors that mosquitoes, black flies and others use to find hosts for them to bite. By blocking the receptors, the products stop the insects from biting.

Some products, as you might imagine, are more effective than others. Eaton recommends that you check the active ingredient and always follow the label directions. 

Hair Shirts, Bear Grease and Bug Suits 

Before we get into the chemicals, how about the no-spray alternatives?
How about using nothing? No protection at all. Just go out there like a hair shirt and show the mosquitoes who’s boss.

I’ve hiked with folks who try this. Some just put up with the bugs and don’t complain at all. They wonder what the fuss is all about. I do wonder, however, whether they reach their vehicle at the end of a long, buggy hike, jump inside and in the privacy and comfort of their cars, let the profanities fly.

 hiked with a fellow from India a few years ago who’s only protection in one of the buggiest places in New Hampshire (Effingham) was a small fan, the size of a ping pong paddle. Seemed to work, but he was constantly swatting.

And I’ve often heard that Native Americans successfully used bear grease to keep away the bugs. While I wouldn’t ask for it at the drug store, I suppose you could get some bear grease if you tried hard enough. Then, if you did, what would you do? Rub it all over yourself? I suspect it would keep away more than the bugs.

Bug suits and hats are an attractive alternative, much less messy than bear grease. You can buy a top just for your head. You can get a shirt and top combo. Or you can get the whole suit -- pants and all -- and walk around like an astronaut.

They do work. I’ve used them in the woods and in the garden. But you can feel a little claustrophobic in there, sweating and squinting while the mass of flies hover around your head. 


The champion of the chemical line-up seems to be DEET, the short name for N, N-diethyl-meta-toluamide. The stuff is as scary as its name, but it does seem to work against mosquitoes, black flies, midges and even ticks. It doesn’t work against deer flies and horseheads; nothing really fights them, according to Eaton.

Products with higher concentrations of DEET generally last longer and are more effective than those with low concentrations, Eaton says. But it shouldn’t be used in concentrations over 30 percent. And it should never be used on infants under 2 months old. And don’t get it in your mouth, nose or eyes.

The other problem with DEET is that it dissolves plastics, which invites all sorts of questions about its effect on your skin. 


Products with picaradin are becoming more common, and like those with DEET, can come in pump sprays, aeresols and wipes.

On the plus side, picaradin doesn’t dissolve plastics, like cameras and such.

On the down side, picaradin seems to have a short span of effectiveness. I find I need to re-apply it every hour or so, unlike DEET. 


Derived from grasses native to tropical Asia, citronella is often used in candles and torches.
While I don’t recommend hiking with torches, they can be pretty cool near the campfire. 

Oil of Lemmon Eucalyptus 

According to Eaton, research has shown that natural products like this are less effective on mosquitoes than products with DEET or picaradin.

In my own decidedly unscientific tests with lemmon, eucalyptus oils and other naturals, I’ve returned from the woods, bitten and cranky. I wish they worked better than they do.

Some folks swear by the naturals. And that’s fine. I say, if it works by you, use it! 


This isn’t a standard repellent. It’s really used as a treatment for clothing to ward off mosquitoes and other biting insects. I’ve found it works best against ticks, and it really does work.

It comes in aeresols, pump sprays and solutions. You generally treat the clothes according to instructions, let them dry and they’re good to go.

I’ve found the best bet for permethrin is to treat gaiters, boots and below-the-knees parts of a grungy pair of pants. That’s my anti-tick outfit. And it stays in the basement or on the porch.

Whatever ammo you choose against bugs, even if it’s bear grease, follow the label’s instructions and be flexible. If it doesn’t work, try something else.

Just don’t let the bugs win! 

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.