Chapter Twenty-One: Battle of the Bugs

NOTE: "Semi-Rough: A North Country Journal," is now available as a complete book, that includes these on-line essays and more. If you'd like a free pdf to download to your computer, send me a note at  and I'll email you a copy.

9 July 2001 - "It made the news today in the local paper, on the local radio station, and on Maine Public Radio: the town of Wells, Maine, has released 17,000 dragonflies, in their local battle to control mosquitoes. Because dragonflies love to eat mosquitoes, they are bought by the bagful ($30 for 50 dragonfly nymphs, $52 for 100). The program was started 26 years ago, when pesticide spraying for mosquitoes became controversial. According to some townspeople, the program has really worked. Placebo effect?"

Almost every one of our journal entries includes a notation or two about the Big Four - mosquitoes, blackflies, midges (no-see-ums), and deerflies. Living in the North Country means living with them, and living in the woods in the North Country means living with the bugs on intimate terms.

It seems to be generally agreed that the longer one lives with the Big Four, the easier (or, at least, the nearer to neutrality) the relationship gets. Still, I think few people reach the point at which they can completely ignore these buzzing, biting, obnoxious (and noxious) neighbors. Otherwise, why would everyone continue to talk about them, and - unlike the weather, which is talked about but generally acknowledged to be out of our control - continue to try to figure out ways to fight them?

During my first summers in the North Country, the bugs really drove me crazy. I had previous experience with almost unbearable bugs in the West - snow-melt mosquitoes in the High Sierra, for example, in clouds of noxious ferociousness that I had thought couldn't be equaled - but I wasn't prepared for the day after day, week after week North Country onslaught. I badly wanted to be outdoors because of all the new fauna and flora there was to discover, but the buzzing masses were almost more than I could stand. When I did venture out, I drenched myself with bug dope, stuffed my pant legs inside my socks, and wore heavy, long-sleeved shirts even in the hottest, stickiest weather. It wasn't fun, but it was the only way I knew to "enjoy myself."

As our journal attests, the bugs are still here, but I haven't used bug dope in over twenty years. Why not? It's complicated. Part of the reason is that, like many people, we've developed a distrust for pesticides, even the "safe" ones. (It's hard to forget that the "safe" chemicals of the 1960s that I sprayed like water on wildlife refuge weeds - and, incidentally, all over myself - were found ten years later to be cancer-producing.) And maybe there aren't quite so many bugs around us. The 1998 Ice Storm and all the nearby logging since 1995 have certainly resulted in a sunnier, drier local environment that is not as bug-friendly as the former deep, wet woods - but that wouldn't explain insect decreases that might have occurred in the 80s and early 90s. Environmental change and pesticide concerns aside, I think that there are two developments that are most important:
   (1) I have grown smarter as I've grown older. Just as everybody but "mad dogs and Englishmen" have learned not to go out in the noonday sun, so it now takes something pretty important to get me out of the house when the bugs are at their worst. Lots of birds flying around out there in the woods? Let 'em fly! I'll be out when the blackflies reach civilized numbers, again; and                                                                                                  (2) My tolerance of the bugs has increased with age. If they aren't "too bad," I seem to be able to more or less ignore them - to be able both literally and figuratively to just brush them off. Isn't age wonderful?

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4 June 1999 - "We continued to work on the flower beds in the morning. Sally got a deerfly bite (her third in four days!), and didn't feel too well the rest of the day."

29 May 1999 - "Black flies are the worst they've been. We both got bites, and I had to use the 'bug suit' to work in the garden. Even worse than the black flies outdoors was a late afternoon invasion of midges inside the house. We both got a number of bites, and sat itching and burning for several hours in the evening."

After acknowledging my truce with the bugs, I have to admit that it is an uneasy one, and that we continue to look for ways to get beyond détente to a position of outright power. Unethical? Maybe, but the midges that invade our house and force us to turn off the oil lamps or head lamps and sit in the dark are certainly not living up to the "outside is yours, inside is ours" terms of the treaty. Besides, Sally has had extreme reactions to some bug bites (particularly those of deerflies), and passive resistance is not always medically enough.

One of our first post-pesticide control techniques involved, like our lead-in journal entry, the dragonfly. Actually, it was just the sound of the dragonfly that we tried to enlist. In a mail order catalog, we found a little green battery-operated device that, when clicked on, allegedly made the exact noise as "the dreaded dragonfly," which terrorizes mosquitoes so badly that they turn tail and head back to the swamp. (This assumes that mosquitoes know that they are the favorite food of dragonflies, and that they have learned to recognize the sound of deadly danger. I can't comment on that.) We bought two; inserted the batteries; hung them on our belts; and headed out the road into mosquito country. The result? The battery-powered dragonflies are in a box somewhere, where they have been for the 25 years or so since we bought them.

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30 May 2000 - "Blackflies in swarms - really difficult to force ourselves to go outside most of the day. Nevertheless, with the aid of my bug suit, I mowed around the barn area for an hour. Bright sun, high humidity, and the bugs still did me in pretty quickly, so I returned to the house for the rest of the day."

We had seen ads for screened hats, screened shirts, and even screen pants, and about 1995 we bought two pairs of these "bug suits." Ours consisted of mesh pants, and a mesh shirt with attached mesh head cover. In contrast to the technological approach of the electronic dragonfly, the bug suit is conceptually plainly utilitarian: don't let the bugs and the skin come into contact.

I found that the bug shirt with head net did extend the amount of time that I could force myself to stay outside during severe blackfly and mosquito periods. I found it most useful for gardening, when I had to be right down in the dirt with the bugs and where my disturbance of the soil was causing them to swarm. Wearing the shirt allowed me to accomplish a few things that I might not have even attempted without it. Having said that, I have to admit that I haven't used the shirt more than a dozen or so times since I bought it, and I don't think I ever wore the pants. Why?
   * The "mad dogs and Englishmen" message: I try not to go outside when the bug suit would be really necessary.
   * Although the mesh does keep a lot of the bugs physically away, it doesn't stop the buzzing around. Psychologically, I find the noise made by clouds of mosquitoes around my head almost as intolerable as their bites. When the bugs are that bad, I'm indoors.
   * While the netting does protect from most blackflies and deerflies, mosquitoes have been known to land on the fabric and stab through the screening. To be really safe, you need to wear a long-sleeved shirt and long pants under the netting. In bug season, it's often too warm and humid to want extra layers of clothing. Long pants and shirt by themselves give protection to all but hands, face, and neck, so the bug suit becomes superfluous. If one could wear it with just shorts and a tee shirt...
   * I've never been able to use my binoculars through the head net. Much of my reason for wandering around in severe bug periods is to watch birds. If I'm constantly unzipping the head net so I can watch birds, I'm not accomplishing much except allowing blackflies to crawl in and live inside the net with me for awhile.

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5 June 1999 - "In the Gempler's catalog, we had seen some sticky strips that you put on your hat to trap deerflies. We bought a few packets, and have been using them. In two or three hours of gardening, the strip on my hat bagged 25 deer flies. Pretty good! (And like a famous ruler, I can claim that my hands were clean of this mayhem.)"

These things really work! Whoever came up with this idea knows how deerflies operate. While you can be attacked on any exposed part of your body, a deerfly often circles around and around until it finally lands high on the back of your head. A piece of fly-paper strategically placed (just above the size-adjuster area of a baseball cap, for example) provides a landing strip with a built-in surprise. The strip is so sticky that a fly barely touching its surface will be caught fast. The buzzing until the fly dies can be annoying (and can be really loud if you have several flies caught at once), but can also be quite satisfying if you have been a victim of deerfly attentions. Remember not to swat the back of your head; the tape catches hands as effectively as it does flies, and the stickum is really hard to get off.

Deerfly strips are quite selective They occasionally trap a mosquito or blackfly, but that's accidental and incidental. They are really planned to take advantage of the habits of the deerfly. They also are a protective, rather than an aggressive, device, only selecting the deerflies that have already selected you. The wages of sin, etc.

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If your problems with bugs go beyond the psychological to the medical, you might like to know about some homeopathic approaches to both problem avoidance and treatment. For a number of years, Sally has taken "bug drops," a delectable mixture of ground-up insects in solution that "provides factors that mitigate hypersensitivity to biting insects." (Read the label: it is a veritable rogue's gallery of the bad bug world.) If you take the drops for awhile before you are exposed to biting insects, your body builds up a resistance to the venom. Not only are reactions to the bites less severe, but there seems to a repellent quality, as well. (When Sally is taking bug drops and I am not, fewer bugs seem to swarm around and land on her than they do on me.)

Another homeopathic medicine works on the "hair of the dog that bit you" principle. After you've received a serious insect bite (one that swells up and gets hot, for example), you take "apis" drops. This is bee anti-venom, and works to counteract the insect poison already in your system. The response in reduced swelling is sometimes nothing less than amazing.

This essay is about "bad bugs." But the same conditions that make for abundant bad bugs also make for some wonderful good bugs. That's another story for another day.

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