Scourge of the winged biters
Payback is upon us. We may be experiencing the buggiest spring in years, or so the experts say. George Williams from the American Entomological Society points out that more mosquitoes survive during a mild winter and a warm/wet spring. What this means for us is that as we savor the greening of the forests, the chirping of the peeper frogs and the return of the birds, billions of insects are hatching.
Legions of mosquitoes are descending on us, causing us to suddenly become more animated than a third base coach flashing signals to base runners with our slapping, scratching and twitching. Unless precautions are taken, we will become blood donors to the bug world. If we're going to share the great outdoors with these mini terrorists, there's a few things we ought to know.
The arrival of warm weather, sometime around Memorial Day, unleashes legions of them. If you're an outdoor person, mosquitoes will likely be your companions. Shaded areas, especially near standing water, are their favored habitat. But if the air is still, they'll be almost anywhere except offshore over open water. Unless it is cool, such as at dawn and dusk, you'll find mosquitoes at their most active. Getting into the wind can be your best defense.
Fortunately mosquitoes are repelled and annihilated by repellents containing DEET, which is an acronym for a chemical whose scientific name is about as long as this description. The higher the concentration of DEET the more effective it is. That should be taken as a cautionary note, however, since there are concerns about exposure to human skin in high doses.
Regarding DEET, I have the following recommendations:
1) Don't use it unless there is a problem. Just because a place looks "mosquitoey," wait until they bite before applying repellent.
2) Go light with the dosage. Use the cream or liquid and just put a couple drops on the back of your hand. Why the back of the hands? This keeps the chemical off your palms so you won't eat it. After rubbing the backs of your hands together, apply it to exposed skin. You will be surprised at how little is needed to stop the biting.
3) Aerosol repellent dispensers tend to be overused. Kids often apply it like spray paint. If, after applying repellent, your skin is moist and has a sheen to it, you've overdone it.
4) As a first step, try spraying the tip of the bill of a baseball cap. That may offer enough protection so that you don't need DEET on your face.
Mosquitoes may be repelled by DEET but these insects are attracted to perfumes, colognes, hair sprays and lotions. It is best go into mosquito territory without wearing any beauty products.
Hordes of mosquitoes will quickly be forgotten if a serious black fly hatch is underway. Predominantly an early season phenomena, black flies are usually gone by mid-July. Whereas mosquitoes favor the edges of the day, black flies work the day-time shift, being especially industrious on sunny days. To thrive they need moving water for breeding, which means you can expect to find them almost anywhere in the backcountry of the upper Midwest.
Black flies are hoverers, often flying in tight circles just inches from your face. Though DEET is minimally effective, black flies will land on treated skin and walk under a cuff or shirt-top to bite. Not usually felt initially, hours later black flies bites will cause a painful itch.
The best protection from black flies comes using DEET on exposed skin and then sealing pathways to untreated surfaces by tucking pant legs in socks, using rubber bands or Velcro on sleeves and cinching a belt tightly around the waist. Nothing can be done to keep them from pursuing their annoying habit of zooming about close to your head.
Sand or biting flies
The only time in a lifetime of camping that insects drove me off a site was when sand flies attacked us along the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. DEET was ineffective. Not even swatting deterred them, so we retreated to the car.
Luckily they hatch in cycles so you can go from having them everywhere one day to being almost gone the next. They love the Great Lakes as well as large inland bodies of water and are most prevalent along shorelines. When the barometer starts dropping signaling an approaching storm, they come at you full bore. They target thin clothing as well as exposed skin, so ankles, especially those covered in lightweight socks, particularly susceptible.
I visited a camp on Lake Superior years ago to find all the campers and staff zippered into their tents or making occasional sprints to the lake where they waded up to their neck and still had to duck under at times to avoid persistent flies.
The bane of summertime trail runners, deer flies match you stride for stride as they seek purchase on your scalp, neck or back. When you feel the sharp painful jab of a bite, your reflexive slap will likely squish the attacker often with a satisfying pop as your hand makes contact.
Wearing bright colors like white, yellow or orange tend to be more effective at repelling them rather than clothing yourself in drab or dark colored fabrics.
A square of static-free dryer cloth tucked under a baseball cap seems to ward deer flies off your head, leaving them to focus on your lower back and thighs. The effectiveness of DEET lasts only a few minutes.
As a high school coach, I used to tell my runners that if they could run faster than seven minutes a mile, deer flies couldn't keep up. We still had some bites, but not as many had they been running slower. One summer morning while doing a 20-miler, deer flies started to make a meal of myself and my companion. We tore off slender pine boughs and flailed ourselves trying to dislodge the flies with the branches. I rarely run trails in mid-summer anymore.
When insects, especially back flies and mosquitoes, are swarming, head nets will provide welcome relief. Every seasoned outdoorsman carries a couple head nets with him.
Products saturated in permethrin, commonly sold under the Sawyer label, will repel insects. This can be sprayed on clothing and will last several weeks even when clothing is washed. The directions tell users not to spray clothes while they are being worn and to hang treated items for a few hours to dry.
When camping, citronella or similar products may offer some relief. Smoke is a natural repellent. I used to fish with a guy who smoked cigars. This kept the bugs at bay, but isn't much help if you're not a smoker. If you can tolerate it, sitting on the smoky end of the campfire will leave you insect-free.
Dave Foley suspects that if there were no biting insects in the wilderness, there would be too many people out there and subsequently no wilderness.