It's not quite summer yet, according to the calendar. Nevertheless, everything has turned green, flowers are popping everywhere, fireflies have made their appearance and the warm rays of the sun beckon us outside. This scenario would be perfect if it weren't heralded by the arrival of mosquitoes and ticks. How can two creatures that are so small make life so miserable for us?
Even with repellent on, it is nearly impossible to enjoy a pleasant evening outside because, even though they may not be lighting on you, they are buzzing everywhere else. Yes, mosquitoes are certainly the scourge of summer.
Why do they like us humans so well? Well, I was surprised to find out that not all mosquitoes feed on blood. Males drink nectars whereas the females feast on our blood to nourish their eggs. They usually go for ankles and wrists because the blood vessels are closer to the surface at these points which make it easier for them. The higher our body temperature is and the more we sweat, the more they like us.
When they bite us, they inject a small amount of their saliva to stop the blood from clotting. Our bodies react to this foreign substance by producing a protein called histamine which causes our blood vessels to swell and so we have the little bump. The itching results from an allergic reaction to their saliva.
Once you are bitten, it is usually more of an annoyance than a health issue unless you have a severe reaction in which case you should seek medical advice. Otherwise, icing the area of the bite can help by restricting the capillaries and reducing swelling. You can use a low-potency hydrocortisone cream for the itching and the third thing you can do is to simply have patience!
The hardest thing to do when mosquito-bitten is to resist the urge to scratch that itch. Different folks have different strokes for managing the itch. Some swear by rubbing meat tenderizer, lemon juice or a paste of mashed garlic and white vinegar on the affected area. Others use baking soda and water or oatmeal. Some folks take high doses of vitamin B-1 (100 mg) two to three times a day. Since it all depends on body chemistry, what works for one person may not for another.
Of course, better than being bitten at all, is prevention. The best place to start is in the yard; if they are not around, they can't bite you. They need standing water to lay their eggs which is why they always seem to be worse near lakes and rivers or after a storm. Eliminate their breeding sites like empty bottles, buckets and pots. They love stagnant water.
Some plants naturally repel them. Try planting marigolds, chrysanthemums, asters and pyrethrum daisies. Some herbs like basil, anise and coriander also send them scurrying. A little sage or rosemary burned over coals or citronella plants and candles will also help. Big bonus here, you can enjoy the flowers and eat the herbs.
One of the easiest ways to keep the mosquito population under control is to encourage natural predators. If you have a pond, you will certainly have dragonflies and they love to feast on mosquitoes. Bats also consider them a delicacy. You may not want bats in your barn, as I have, so putting up a bat house is a good choice. One small brown bat can eat 600 mosquitoes per hour. Pesticides will help but you also run the risk of killing off dragonflies and fireflies.
Whether you treat your yard or not, you will want protection for yourself. If using bug repellant that contains DEET, choose one that contains no more than 25 percent of the chemical. A more natural approach is to use lemon eucalyptus oil, garlic or apple cider vinegar. Either eating these ingredients or rubbing them on your skin will repel the insects because they do not like the odor. Recently, health food advocates have been touting the benefits of Switchel, or haymaker's punch, that has been around a long time. It is like a natural substitute for Gatorade and will also keep the mosquitoes at bay. Just mix 1 gallon of water, 1-1/2 cups molasses, 1/3 cup apple cider vinegar and 1 tablespoon ginger and drink.
Besides mosquitoes, ticks are also an unwelcome critter that makes its presence known with the onset of summer. These have become more prolific in recent years and can spread disease, most commonly Lyme disease.
Be sure and do a full body check, including your scalp, after being outside in the grass or woods. Tumbling your clothes in the dryer for 10 minutes after being outside will kill any ticks on the clothing as will washing them in hot water. Showering within two hours of coming indoors will reduce the risk of Lyme disease. A product called Permathrin can treat clothes and boots and remain protective through many washings. Insect repellents and oil of lemon and eucalyptus can also deter them.
Even after precautions, if a tick does latch onto you, remove it as quickly as possible to prevent infection. The best way to remove a tick is to grasp it as close to the skin as possible with fine-tipped tweezers. Pull upward with steady pressure, making sure to get the head and body removed. After removing, clean the affected area and hands with alcohol or soap and water.
There is a saying that "to have the good, you have to have the bad also." Everything balances out. Hello mosquitoes and ticks, welcome summer!
Photo by Getty Images/frank600.