Mosquitoes, Chiggers and Ticks: Dealing with Bugs

DEET is still the king!


Aedes_aegypti_E-A-Goeldi_1905We are now firmly in the throes of Indiana’s vampire season. Every outdoor adventure between now and the first frost will include a host of uninvited flying and crawling critters searching for a delicious sip of human blood.  As the warm-weather season grows shorter, the bugs get more aggressive but you can stop them will a sip of DEET or your favorite other insect-repelling concoction.

Here are a few ideas to tip the balance in your favor during hand-to-wing combat.

There are a number insect villains native to Indiana ranging from tiny no-see-ums with a painful bite far in excess of their size, to deer flies that seemingly gouge out enough meat to build a decent hamburger whenever they bite.  Most prevalent is the ubiquitous mosquito, the unofficial Hoosier state bird.

The number one line of defense against winged and crawling pests is a healthy slathering of a chemical with a huge name: N, N-diethyl-toluamide, otherwise known as DEET.  The military discovered DEET in the 1950’s while trying to find a chemical that would protect the troops against a wide variety of disease-causing insects and arthropods.  Since that time, DEET has been repeatedly tested and found to be one of the only compounds effective against most pests.

Applied to the skin, DEET offers hours of protection and can remain effective for days if applied to clothing.  Unfortunately, it does melt many synthetic materials and should only be applied to cotton or wool garments.  Be carefully with sunglasses and firearms finishes, both of which react badly to even small doses of DEET or other insecticide products.

DEET has been exhaustively tested by many different researchers and found to be fairly safe.  The chemical is freely absorbed through the skin, but seems to cause no problems in reasonable doses for most people though deaths have been attributed to allergic reactions to DEET.  Anyone who experiences a rash or other symptoms after applying any insect repellant should wash immediately and seek medical attention.

How much DEET should be use?  There is a bewildering selection of products available that range from five to 100-percent DEET.  Though opinions vary, most scientific evidence suggests that products containing 10 to 35% DEET are most effective without risking excessive exposure to the chemical.  Higher concentrations of DEET are best used on clothing and scarves rather than directly on the skin.

For children, the American Association of Pediatrics recommends that parents use insect repellents that contain six to ten percent DEET and only apply it to children over the age of two.  Never apply repellent to a child’s hands as they always end up in their mouth.  Pregnant women are advised to refrain from insect repellent altogether.

There are many other preparations and products that claim to reduce insect attack.  According to unbiased scientific testing and painful personal experience, most of these other alternatives appear to be so much snake oil.

Garlic, brewers yeast and vitamin B1 are often claimed to repel mosquitoes when taken orally.  Most of these claims can be traced back to the manufacturers of garlic, brewers yeast and vitamin tablets.

Citronella oil, extracted from a plant, has been used as a repellent since 1882.  Used in candles and “safe” insect repellents, the oil does seem to reduce mosquito activity slightly.  When used on the skin, the strong-smelling oil often reduces social activity around the wearer.  The incense-like coils sold for patio use also seem to reduce insect activity somewhat and smell somewhat pleasant.

Avon Skin-So-Soft lotion (and a host of imitations) is widely used as a mild insect repellent, especially against black flies.  So far, most research shows that the preparation is ineffective though millions still swear by the lotion.  You will have to rely on your own judgment.

There are several electronic insect pest repellents that promise to work on everything from mosquitoes to rabid grizzly bears.  Scientific tests have shown these devices make great paperweights.

One device that we have tested and proved effective is the ThermaCell insect electronic repellent.  Instead of electricity, the ThermaCell is powered by a plastic butane cartridge that heats a small pad impregnated with insect-repelling chemical.  There is no detectable heat or odor but the device does seem very effective in a 10-foot radius, provided there is no wind.  See our review of the ThermaCell here.  The ThermaCell can be picked up at many “big-box” stores such as Walmart for around $20.

There are several other measures you can take to defeat the tiny intruders.  Light colored, long-sleeved clothing certainly helps, along with battening all hatches such as collars and cuffs against intrusion.  Head nets work well when bugs attack in battalion strength but are bulky and uncomfortable.  An alternative is a bandanna, smeared with repellent, draped around the neck.

When fighting the aerial combat of winged pests, don’t forget about ticks.  After being outside, especially in tall grass, always conduct a tick check.  There are several tick-borne diseases found in our state and the only way to prevent a problem is thorough, unclothed (and hopefully private) body inspection upon returning indoors.  Make sure you lock the bathroom door, especially if your friends are practical jokers with a digital camera.

One good tick defense is insect repellent-impregnated clothing from several manufacturer’s such as Ex Officio and Zorrel.  These are effective but expensive; we have found that permethrin treatment applied to our own clothing does an equally fantastic job of keeping the nasty critters at bay at lessor cost.  During one hike on the Knobstone trail when finding 10 ticks on each pant leg wasn’t uncommon, none of the insects reached skin.  It appeared that the ticks would transfer to clothing from passing vegetation but almost as quickly dropped off upon getting a taste of the insecticide.

One other great solution to our problem was discussed by the famed outdoor writer Robert Travers in his book Trout Madness.  He suggested that anglers “smoke cheap Italian cigars, which smell like a flophouse mattress fire mixed with rotting Bermuda onions.  They will, however, keep insects and most respectable ladies at bay.”

That solves several problems.


University of Florida repellent guide

National Pesticide Info Center: Choosing and using insect repellents

DEET Fact Sheet (PDF, requires Adobe Acrobat)

University of Nebraska: What’s the scoop on insect repellents?

CDC West Nile Virus Information

Shop for insect products at

Sawyer’s Prem. 24oz Permethrin Clothing Insect Repellent Spray – 2 PACK





REPEL Sportsmen Max Insect Repellent Pump Spray, 6-oz, 2-PK




Thermacell MR-LJ Portable Mosquito Repeller, Black

Top photo by JJ Harrison via Wikimedia Commons

Brent Wheat
A well-known and award-winning writer/photographer/radio & television talent/speaker/web-designer/media spokesperson/shooting instructor/elected official/retired police officer/bourbon connoisseur/cigar aficionado/backpacker/hunter/fisherman/gardener/preparedness guru/musician/and jack-of-all-trades-but-master-of-none, Brent Wheat is the editor and publisher of


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here