Of all the things I've yearned for this summer, like cookouts and picnics and leisurely fishing trips, the itch of bug bites is definitely not one of them. I don't actually get bitten much – there's speculation that a diet rich in B vitamins helps to stave off bug bites, but little conclusive evidence. But my kids definitely get eaten up, and if we're not careful, their little arms and legs swell up in giant nickel-sized lumps with each bite. Beyond the incessant itching, there's good reason to avoid bug bites as biting insects like mosquitoes and ticks can carry a wide range of viruses that can have negative, long-term impacts on one's health. Unfortunately, the many pesticides and synthetic repellants that we use to prevent bug bites can come with consequences of their own.
"The use of pesticides to control mosquitoes is worrying for two reasons," explains Becky Croteau, an ecologist who teaches at Lincoln Land Community College. "Firstly, these pesticides don't just affect mosquitoes – anything that kills mosquitoes will also kill pollinators – so from an ecological and biodiversity perspective, these kinds of pesticides are very concerning. Secondly, the chemicals that are used in many lawn sprays can drift over and cause harm to neighbors who may be allergic or immune-compromised, and I'd also be cautious about exposing children and pets to these sorts of products," she said. Thankfully, Croteau, who spends much of her summer outdoors leading students on field visits and working in her garden, has an arsenal of savvy tips that work both for you and the ecosystem.
Practice good backyard hygiene
Drain and eliminate any sources of standing water. Mosquitoes breed in still and stagnant water – even tiny puddles like those around the bottom of a flower pot. Be sure to rinse out bird baths and outdoor water bowls regularly and give them a scrub with a brush once a week to remove any lingering eggs that may be stuck to the side. Keep gutters and ditches clear so that water flows freely. If there are areas of standing water that can't be drained, like a low spot in your yard, consider using a product like Mosquito Dunks that contains a naturally occurring soil bacterium to kill mosquito larvae before they hatch.
"Avoid having dense vegetation around where you plan to hang out because they like that shady type of environment," advises Croteau. "Do consider surrounding your outdoor living area with plants that are known to deter a range of pests like marigolds, citronella, basil and cilantro."
"Bats eat mosquitoes like crazy," Croteau pointed out. One small brown bat can eat up to 600 mosquitoes an hour. "If you have a good spot located high up to install a bat house, that will really help to keep the population down."
Dress the part
Mosquitoes are especially attracted to dark-colored clothing, so covering your skin with loose, light-colored clothing is the most practical way to prevent being bitten. Mosquitoes can sometimes bite through tight fabric.
"One of my favorites is sandalwood incense," Croteau suggested. "I get the long sticks from the Indian market, and if it's especially bad, I stick them in the ground around where I'm working and it truly helps keep them at bay." Other essential oils that Croteau recommends using to repel biting bugs include lemon eucalyptus, lavender, cinnamon, thyme, citronella and tea tree oil. They can be applied directly to skin, but be sure to dilute them with a neutral like olive or almond oil first.
Don't scratch the itch
It can be very difficult, but try to avoid scratching bug bites as, this will only make it worse and could lead to infection. Over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream is a good option, as well as salves that contain calendula and plantain, a common weed that grows all over central Illinois. You can make a poultice with finely minced or mashed plantain leaf mixed with bentonite clay and water to form a paste that can be applied topically. If you find yourself covered with bug bites and nothing to relieve the itch, you can bruise a plantain leaf by lightly chewing it, then rubbing it directly onto the bite. It's not glamorous, but it works!
Ashley Meyer is a freelance writer based in Springfield who is looking forward to spending time outside with her family this summer.