Preventing mosquito bites the earth friendly way

First published November 2008, updated August 2012

Mosquitos are probably one of my least favorite of the earth’s critters. I’m really not sure what positive role they play in the ecosystem aside from being food for other creatures. In fact, the problems caused by mosquitos seem to far outweigh their benefits!

When the Dalai Lama was asked the single most important thing to teach children, his response was (reportedly) “teach them to love the insects“. However, even he is reported to have OK’ed the squishing of mosquitos – but after giving them two chances first by swatting them away of course. While admirable, this may not be practical or safe. 

Mosquitos kill millions

Mosquitos spread all sorts of diseases such as malaria; which kills millions every year. Even non-life threatening diseases spread by mosquitos can be debilitating and span a lifetime. 

It’s not just humans who are impacted. The mosquito-borne West Nile virus that has killed dozens of people in the USA in recent years  has also killed hundreds of thousands of birds.

At the time of updating this article (August 18, 2012), the USA is experiencing its worst West Nile virus season to date. In Texas alone, where a state of emergency has been declared,  ten people have died and hundreds are infected. Since West Nile was discovered in the USA in 1999, there have been 30,000 human cases with over a thousand fatalities. Those aren’t particularly good odds.

The human helper

Human activity has given the mosquito a helping hand, just not through the sheer numbers of two legged meals available, but also increasing the availability of the medium they need to breed – water. From large man-made expanses such as reservoirs to just a few teaspoons worth accumulated on plastic rubbish, these are all breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

A senior researcher at the Centre for Vector Biology in New Haven, Connecticut believes a period of global may see more West Nile virus activity in the USA.

As with most pest problems we face, we tend to use nasty poisons. Back in the mid 20th century, DDT was hailed as a solution to mosquito control and declared “safe”. I remember seeing archive footage of kids dancing around in clouds of the stuff. It was highly effective for a while, but then the mosquitoes started becoming immune. To make matters worse, it was discovered that DDT decimated bird and aquatic life and while it was mostly banned in the USA by 1972; lingering effects are still being felt today – and it is still being detected in animals as far away as Antarctica, where it was never actually used.

“Safe” repellents?

That brings us to modern artificial insect ides and repellents – those that are deemed “safe” too. Are we possibly putting ourselves and the wider environment in danger by applying lashings of personal repellent and other insecticides?

One of the most widely used ingredients in repellents is DEET – N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide. The use of DEET like many things produced in our laboratories, moderation is important and abstinence is even better if you can manage it.

A survey by the Extension Toxicology Network at Cornell University in 1997 found :

“Everglades National Park employees having extensive Deet exposure were more likely to have insomnia, mood disturbances and impaired cognitive function than were lesser exposed co-workers.”

There’s a variety of other possible side effects as well and DEET has also been found to be slightly toxic to birds, fish and aquatic invertebrates.

So it would seem that while artificial repellents play a very important role in protecting us (and given the situation in some areas, it’s riskier not to use them), there needs to be other measures in place to make these substances the last line of defence wherever possible – for the sake of our health and the environment.

The big one – standing water

Probably one of the most important tips is to get rid of any standing water you have around your yard – whether it’s rain collected in old tires, a discarded plastic container hiding under a shrub or water sitting in a drain or roof gutter; mosquitos are a “just add water” type of critter.

We had a pond and while we had turtles in it, I was hardly bothered by mozzies; but within a couple of weeks of removing the turtles I became a mosquito diner.

While turtles aren’t for everyone, there are some hardy types of fish that can live in small ponds that are very effective in controlling mosquitoes such as Gambusia (mosquito fish) – but these shouldn’t be introduced to ponds where there are other fish as they can be quite aggressive. They definitely shouldn’t be released into waterways where they aren’t a native.

Another good way to discourage mosquitoes in ponds is to have the water moving through the use of a small fountain – mosquitos require still water for egg laying.

But just because you address standing water in your own yard, it doesn’t mean your neighbors will be quite as thorough. Mosquitoes will travel up to a mile from where they emerged, so you’ll need some extra protection.

More mosquito avoidance tips

– Cover up – wear long sleeved clothing where possible. When researching this article I found a great deal of conflicting information on clothing color; even on reputable medical sites – some said mozzies were attracted to light clothes, others said dark clothes.

– Some swear by essential oils such as lemongrass, lemon eucalyptus, peppermint and pure vanilla extract as repellents, others say they are entirely ineffective. As so many oils are recommended, are quite expensive to buy and can cause irritation if not mixed properly, before buying up a supply of essential oils to trial, give a commercial ready-to-go natural product a whirl – these will usually contain a mixture of oils. Try running a search on the terms: natural mosquito repellent on your favorite search engine and also read reviews from others on particular brands. Also check the label of any such product carefully – “natural” can be a rather rubbery term.

– Mosquitoes are attracted by many fragrances, such as those found in shampoos and sunscreens, so try using fragrance-free products.

– Most mosquitoes are active between dusk and dawn, so avoid being outside between those times and particularly heavy exercise during the darker hours as mosquitoes are attracted to body heat, the scent of sweat and sources of high levels of carbon dioxide.

– If you are outside, such as when entertaining guests; try lighting a few citronella candles upwind of where you are. Citronella is a natural repellent and is the active component of lemongrass.

– Check all your fly screens – a small hole is a gaping gateway for mozzies

– Even if they don’t bite you, there’s nothing more annoying than the sound of a mosquito buzzing while you’re trying to sleep. A mosquito net placed around and over your bed will help ensure a peaceful and bite-free sleep. Mosquito netting draped over a wide brimmed hat can also be an option for protecting your face when engaged in some outdoor activities.

… and if you do find the need to use DEET based repellents, bear in mind that more is not better – read the instructions for application carefully.

Have you found an earth friendly way to prevent mosquitos biting you? Please share your tips below.

SPECIAL NOTE: if you are in an area where mosquito borne diseases are prevalent, do whatever you have to in order to protect yourself; even if it’s not terribly environmentally friendly. Being “green” is great, but staying alive is too.