Now that the spring monsoons have more-or-less concluded, Indiana is in the midst of the vampire season. Every outdoor adventure between now and the first frost will include an uninvited host of uninvited flying and crawling critters in search of that refreshing sip of human blood.
There are a number insect villains that make an appearance during warm weather, ranging from tiny no-see-ums with a painful bite far in excess of their size to deerflies that seemingly gouge out enough meat to build a decent hamburger. Most prevalent is the ubiquitous mosquito, Indiana's unofficial state bird.
The number one line of defense against winged and crawling pests is a healthy slathering of a chemical with a huge name: N, N-diethyl-toluamide, otherwise known as DEET. The military discovered DEET in the 1950's while trying to find a chemical that would protect the troops against a wide variety of disease-causing insects and arthropods. Since that time, DEET has been repeatedly tested and found to be one of the only compounds effective against most pests.
Applied to the skin, DEET offers hours of protection and can remain effective for days if applied to clothing. Unfortunately, DEET melts many synthetic materials and should only be applied to cotton or wool fabrics.
DEET has been exhaustively tested by many different researchers and found to be fairly safe. The chemical is freely absorbed through the skin but seems to cause no problems in reasonable doses for most people though several deaths have been attributed to allergic reactions to DEET. Anyone who experiences a rash or other symptoms after applying any insect repellant should wash immediately and seek medical attention.
How much DEET should be use? There is a bewildering selection of products available that range from five to 100-percent DEET. Though opinions vary, scientific evidence suggests that products containing 10 to 35% DEET are most effective without risking excessive exposure to the chemical. Higher concentrations of DEET are best used on clothing and scarves rather than directly on the skin.
For children, the American Association of Pediatrics recommends that parents use insect repellents that contain six to ten percent DEET and only apply it to children over the age of two. Never apply repellant to a child's hands as they always end up in their mouth. Pregnant women are advised to refrain from using insect repellent altogether.
There are many other preparations and products that claim to reduce insect attack. According to unbiased scientific testing and painful personal experience, most of these other alternatives appear to consist of snake oil and wishful thinking.
Garlic, brewer's yeast and vitamin B1 are often claimed to repel mosquitoes when taken orally. Most of these claims can be traced back to the manufacturers of garlic, brewer's yeast and vitamin tablets.
Citronella oil, extracted from a plant, has been used as a repellent since 1882. Used in candles and "safe" insect repellents, the oil does seem to reduce mosquito activity slightly. When used on the skin, the strong-smelling oil often reduces social activity around the wearer.
Avon Skin-So-Soft lotion (and a host of imitations) is widely used as a mild insect repellent, especially against black flies. So far, most research shows that the preparation is ineffective though millions still swear by the lotion. You will have to rely on your own judgment.
One electronic device that we have tested and swear by is the Thermacell line of insect repellents. They burn a small chemical-pad that is odorless but do actually keep most biting insects away.
There are several other measures you can take to defeat the tiny intruders. Light colored, long-sleeved clothing helps, along with battening all hatches such as collars and cuffs against intrusion. Head nets work well when bugs attack in battalion strength but are bulky and uncomfortable. An alternative is a bandana, smeared with repellant, draped around the neck.
While fighting aerial combat with the winged pests, don't forget about ticks. After being outside, especially in tall grass, always conduct a tick check. There are several tick-borne diseases found in our state and the only way to prevent a problem is thorough, unclothed (and hopefully private) body inspection upon returning indoors. Make sure you lock the bathroom door, especially if your friends are practical jokers with a digital camera.
One other great solution to our problem was discussed by the famed outdoor writer Robert Travers in his book Trout Madness. He suggested that anglers "smoke cheap Italian cigars, which smell like a flophouse mattress fire mixed with rotting Bermuda onions. They will, however, keep insects and most respectable ladies at bay."
That solves two problems.
Brent T. Wheat is an award-winning columnist, and publisher of WildIndiana.com. His column appears weekly in The Times.