Vantage Point

Don't Bug Me!

My daughter Hannah was just learning to string words into sentences when she showed me the red bump on her arm. "Bug bite baby!" she said indignantly. It was a mosquito bite, probably not her first and certainly not her last. Like all Missourians, she went on to endure the bites of chiggers, ticks, fleas, horseflies and other pests of summer.

Insects are found everywhere - the polar ice caps, hot springs, soil, air, water, and on and inside plants and animals. There are more kinds of insects on earth than all other living animals combined.

Less than one percent of all insect species are destructive, however. They are the insects that destroy crops, transmit diseases or damage structures, plants, food and fibers. That leaves the other 99 percent that are beneficial or at least not harmful to humans.

Beneficial insects include ladybird beetles and praying mantids (because they prey on destructive insects), earthworms, and honeybees and other insects that pollinate our crops.

The vast majority of insects don't directly benefit humans, but they are a crucial link in the food chain. They are food for birds, fish, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and other insects, and they help break down dead and decaying matter so nutrients can be returned to the soil.

Let me pause here to scratch a chigger bite and reflect on the many benefits of insects. (Chiggers, of course, are not insects at all, but arachnids like ticks and spiders. Scratch, scratch.) These blood-sucking pests challenge our appreciation for little buzzing, flying, crawling, biting things this time of year. No matter how much we value the food chain, we don't like being one of its menu items.

There are several ways to combat the pests that bug you in August. Some work better than others, with less damage to the other 99 percent of the insect world. Here are some tips:

Pest control in your yard: First, get rid of the source of mosquitoes. Anything that collects water - tires, buckets, clogged gutters, etc. - will breed them. If you like to sit on your patio or deck on summer evenings, try burning citronella candles to repel mosquitoes. You may need more than one, placed so their smoke blows toward you.

Bug zappers sure sound like they're working, but mosquitoes aren't attracted to light. Bugs killed by zappers are usually harmless, and bug zapper lights may actually attract more insects than you would have without them.

For more effective mosquito control, try attracting their natural predators, like purple martins and bats. These hungry predators can significantly reduce the number of mosquitoes in your yard and neighborhood.

Pest control on your person: There are several effective repellents on the market. Some Conservation Department employees swear by products containing permethrine, but these must be sprayed on clothing only, not your skin.

There are also effective repellents in native plants if you know how to use them. My friend Ella Roberson, who is an expert in plant lore, gathers plants with insect repellent properties like tansy, goldenseal, wormwood, sassafras, pennyroyal, cedar, walnut, yarrow, sassafras, calamus, spicebush, dittany, elderberry and pawpaw. She boils them together and sprays the strained liquid frequently on her skin to repel chiggers, ticks and mosquitoes.

If you've been walking through field and forest without any repellent, wash as soon as you can with a mix of bleach and water. This is effective for chiggers and poison ivy, too.

Check yourself for ticks; if they're still crawling you can easily remove even the tiniest seed ticks with a piece of masking tape, then dispose of the tape. If ticks are attached to your skin, grasp them with your fingers as close to the head as possible and pull. Try not to squeeze the tick as you remove it. Then apply an antiseptic to the bite, and watch it for signs of infection or a rash. Lyme disease and a mysterious look-alike disease are not common in Missouri, but you should still be cautious.

Bugs bite babies and every other warm-blooded animal. But they don't need to ruin your outdoor excursions. Sensible precautions will help you coexist with the tiny fraction of insects and insectlike animals that are truly bloodthirsty pests.

Scratch, scratch.