Win The Bug Wars

July 9, 2008
Filed under Feature Stories

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They are arthropods, members of the phylum /Arthropoda/ that includes all insects (the six-legged), and arachnids (the eight-legged), and some other critters that live in the sea. In number, they are around 80 percent of all living life forms on Earth. And, yes, many of them help us out a lot in the natural order of things. But we struggle against those eager to suck our blood or willing to sting us when they feel threatened.

Only the female mosquito bites and sucks, with needle-sharp mouthparts, needing blood to produce her eggs. She feeds once every three to four days, ingesting up to her body weight at each meal. With each bite, she squirts in her saliva, filled with anticoagulants and digestive enzymes, and those proteins cause the itchy bump that rises within 24 hours on our skin. In increasing numbers, she may also squirt in West Nile virus (WNV) germs. Already this year (as of April 2008), humans have been diagnosed with WNV in Arizona, Tennessee, and Mississippi. (For the curious, male mosquitoes are devout vegetarians.)

About 80 percent of people infected with WNV don’t get sick. The rest develop fever, aches, nausea, and other symptoms of illness, and one person in every 150 gets seriously ill, and all of the 20 percent should see a doctor. There is no specific treatment, but supportive care usually makes a big difference-although a few people will die again this year, almost all of them elderly.

As with mosquitoes, only the female black fly drinks our blood, but, more primitively, she tears away a tiny bit of skin, often painlessly, and sucks up the blood that pools in the wound. Leave her alone, and she may feed for up to five minutes. Later, the tiny wound becomes painful and severely itchy, and is notoriously slow to heal.
Wounds should be washed, and watched for infection. Those steps that help relieve the itch and pain of mosquito bites should work with black fly bites. No matter our choice of clothing, black flies seem capable of squirming down to skin and feasting. These and other flies-gnats, horseflies, deerflies-should be repelled by insect repellents, but black flies, arguably the most difficult of winged insects to avoid, sometimes seem immune.

In the bug war, mosquitoes and their relatives are dive-bombers, in and out, a buzz and a bite, and they’re gone. Ticks are land mines, partially buried, waiting to explode, and a decidedly unwholesome feeling accompanies finding one with its blood-sucking head stuck in our body.

Here’s the really important part: All ticks should be removed as soon as they are found. While free-ranging, ticks are easily removed-just pick ‘em off. Once attached, no simple, effective, approved method of causing the tick to detach itself is known. In fact, nail polish and the still-hot tips of matches irritate the tick, often causing it to spit up its juices faster. The only medically-approved method of embedded-tick removal is to gently grasp the animal with sharp-tipped tweezers as close as possible to the point of attachment, and remove by pulling gently. Grasping should be perpendicular to its longitudinal axis. Grasping along its axis may turn the tick into a syringe, squirting its contents into us. Do not twist, do not jerk, and it is virtually impossible to tear off the tick’s mouthparts. A small piece of skin may come off painlessly, which means tick removal is almost always complete. Don’t touch the tick with bare hands, but, if possible, put it in a bottle or some such container, saving it for lab tests in case of later illness. After removal, the wound should then be cleansed with soap and water or a disinfectant, and a Band-Aid applied. Tweezers should be cleaned after use.

Eight tick-borne diseases are currently considered indigenous to the United States, and they include Lyme disease, Colorado tick fever, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. If we develop a rash (Lyme disease) or find ourselves ill a few days to several weeks after removing an embedded tick, a doctor should hear our story.

DEET (N, N-diethyl-3-methylbenzamide): Continuing studies show it to be the best. The New England Journal of Medicine (2002) reported a concentration of 23.8% DEET kept bugs away completely for about five hours. Rarely, but now and then, people react negatively (and very rarely the reaction is serious) to DEET on their skin.

Picaridin: A chemical alternative to DEET that works well but not as long as DEET. Unlike DEET, no negative reactions are known.
Lemon Eucalyptus Oil: Products with this oil offer complete protection for about two hours. And it smells kind of nice.
Soybean Oil: Products with this oil keep bugs off for about an hour and a half.

Permethrin: This is a potent insect neurotoxin synthesized, and proven safe, for human use. Apply it to clothing, not to skin, and bugs are killed after contact.
Nothing else, suggest many experts, is worth taking the time to smear on, swallow, or hang near your campsite-it just plain doesn’t work. Although, a smoky fire has worked well for us, bug-wise that is. With all repellents follow the directions on the label.

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