What's Bugging You in the Garden?

comments (0) July 2nd, 2019

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WesternGardener Jodi Torpey, contributor
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Mosquitoes are attracted to body heat, carbon dioxide from breath and the chemicals in sweat.
Plants like Citronella-scented geraniums and marigolds may keep mosquitoes away from the garden.
Mosquitoes are attracted to body heat, carbon dioxide from breath and the chemicals in sweat.Click To Enlarge

Mosquitoes are attracted to body heat, carbon dioxide from breath and the chemicals in sweat.

Photo: USDA Agricultural Research Service

My boyfriend is delicious.

I don't mean that in a sweet or salacious way. I mean insects find him irresistible. From the Outback of Australia to a cozy California motel, hungry bugs seek his companionship. Critters of all sizes, shapes and mouth parts devour him.

The only time we've returned from a trip without any itchy red spots or dark pink divots on John's epidermis was after a week's stay in Iceland. In winter.

We've had the same experience so many times, it's like deja vu on a loop. We're in a strange hotel room, it's evening and the lights are low. We're relaxing after a busy day. John will be quietly inspecting the tender crook of one arm, and then he'll say, "Something bit me."

"What?! Let me see," I say as I grab for that arm to take a better look.

I've said the same thing about chiggers in Kansas, bedbugs in California and an unidentified flying insect in Louisiana. And the angry wasp that stung him as we were leaving Key West.

The chigger bites left marks on his legs for weeks after they enjoyed a feast during a pleasant evening stroll. The wasp made John a little woozy as we boarded the flight home.

But I wasn't as concerned about those small wounds compared to the big bumps that appeared on his arms and forehead after a day spent traipsing around the middle of Australia. By the time we landed in Melbourne, those bumps had grown into quarter-sized red welts. They even showed up in spots fully covered with netting designed to keep insects away.

"Those can't possibly be mosquito bites," I said after close inspection. "They're way too big and puffy. I've never seen anything like those."

I also hadn't seen any mosquitoes while hiking around Uluru. Thousands and thousands of flies, but not a single mosquito.

Although John was still upright and hadn't started foaming at the mouth, I had to know if those bites meant business. I'd read how there are more deadly animals on that continent than anywhere else in the world. Imagining some rare and dreadful insect had dealt him a toxic blow, I steered us through the heavy glass doors of a busy downtown pharmacy and waited in line to talk with a pharmacist.

"Have you ever seen anything like this?" I said pointing to the swelling on his head and arms.

She took one quick look. "Mosquitoes," she said and pointed us to the ointment aisle.

While John had been attacked by a barrage of blood suckers, I remained unscathed. Maybe it's because I spend so much time in the garden that insects consider me a friendly.

Still it bugs me. What is it about him that drives insects wild?

It turns out it's simple chemistry. Some bodily compounds, odors and acids act as creepy-crawler bait. Research indicates it has everything to do with his body heat, the carbon dioxide in his breath and the chemicals in his extra-attractive sweat. "Acidic volatiles" are what lead mosquitoes to him so they can bite him.

There may be ways to change a person's body chemistry to deter insect attacks. I've read that B vitamins or garlic and zinc supplements can shift the chemistry slightly. Home remedies include bathing in diluted chlorine bleach or applying strong-smelling Vick's VapoRub to vulnerable areas.

I'm sure those treatments would repel me, too.

When working in the garden, liberally applied insect repellents can help or carefully placed ThermaCells can keep mosquitoes away. Containers filled with Citronella-scented geraniums and African marigolds may also repel unwanted insects on the patio.

If all else fails, treat the swelling and itching from bites with some of the recommended treatments: lavender hydrosol, cortisone cream, minty toothpaste, ice, antihistamines, Vaseline, witch hazel, honey, tea tree oil, baking soda and water and a moistened aspirin over the bite. Try one or try them all.

In spite of the many repellents and treatments, I know mosquitoes will continue to feast on John. Before the next attack, I wanted to know if he'd always had such an insect magnetism.

"Oh yeah," he said. "When I was a kid my ankles were constantly red and itchy from ant bites."


posted in: insects, mosquitoes