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Gardeners and other outdoors-types have always had to deal with mosquitoes, ticks and chiggers, and many of us chose to pretty much ignore them. But then came Lyme Disease and West Nile Virus, which got even a diehard like me starting to worry. A friend contracted the dreaded Lyme and has since abandoned her garden.

And now with the encroachment of Zika virus, my doctor is giving me a lecture I’m afraid to ignore. So when neighbors posted insect-protection advice on the local Facebook group and recommended consulting the staff at REI, I did just that.

Indeed REI has protective devices and products for seemingly every known insect. And if their customers are backpacking into deep woods with these products, I’m thinking they must be good enough for my townhouse garden, or for walking the wooded path around the lake near me.

Here’s what I was told to do – by a very helpful and (I’m hoping) knowledgeable staffer.

For protection against ticks, he recommended I spray my clothes with Permethrin, though never on the skin. Drench the items and let them dry fully and it’ll work for several weeks and through several washings, he said. Long sleeves are required, and socks tucked into long pants. Plus a hat. I later learned that “Permethrin is an insecticide in the pyrethroid family. Pyrethroids are synthetic chemicals that act like natural extracts from the chrysanthemum flower,” Source.  It may be mum-based but I was warned that it’s very lethal to cats.

(An option I rejected, for now, is buying clothes already treated with Permethrin.)

Then for protection against the ticks and mosquitoes, before each outing I’m supposed to spray all those items with maximum strength DEET, then use a lower-strength DEET product.

From the EPA  I learned that “An estimated one-third of the U.S. population use DEET to protect them from mosquito-borne illnesses like West Nile Virus, the Zika virus or malaria and tick-borne illnesses like Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever….DEET is designed for direct application to people’s skin to repel insects. Rather than killing them, DEET works by making it hard for these biting bugs to smell us.”

The REI guy also suggested I try the lotion Picaridan as a DEET-alternative, and I did. But ugh, it’s a messy lotion, just as unpleasant as spraying something around my face. The product I brought home that I loved and ordered more of online is Ben’s wipes.

Perhaps the primary precaution we’re all supposed to take against tick-borne disease is the post-outdoors whole-body check, but that presumes intimacy with a close personal associate who’s available at all times. People who live alone are out of luck.

All that said, DAMN I hate that I’ve become afraid of being outdoors. DAMN I hate applying products and in the summer when it matters the most, wearing long sleeves and pants. So far, I’m doing it, but only for actual digging in the dirt.  If I’m just watering, and not brushing up against plants, I’m using the DEET wipes and that’s it.

Gardeners, what are YOU doing for protection these days?

Parks, Too

Of course it isn’t just gardeners who are becoming scared shitless to go outside.  An article I wrote about the national park near me prompted all sorts of push-back from readers: Ticks, chiggers! Never going there!

So I asked some National Park Service folks and a public-health crusader for spending time in parks how they would respond. They sighed and suggested two things.

  • (Paraphrasing) Stop listening to scary news reports! Instead, educate yourself about the real dangers – say from the CDC. (Okay, that link advises us to “use common sense” and to “ensure adequate protection during times of day when mosquitoes are most active,” which they list as “dawn to dust.” Oh, great.
  • After gathering facts about the real dangers of ticks and mosquitoes, weigh them against the far greater danger of developing chronic diseases from sitting indoors on your ass all day (definitely paraphrasing). Unfortunately, chronic diseases don’t make for catchy news stories.

Mosquito photo credit. Tick photo credit.

Posted by

Susan Harris
on May 27, 2016 at 10:42 am, in the category Designs, Tricks, and Schemes.


  1. I spray lemon ammonia and lemon dish soap on the trees and bushes. Mosquitos don’t like the smell – it keeps them down but not completely gone.
    And DEET if they get really bad. Lots of rain this winter and spring in northern California this year, so I am prepared. Also mosquito coils – learned that one in Peace corps. Nasty stuff as it kills cockroaches. Go figure.

  2. I use DEET sprayed on my hat and clothing , never my face, when I venture into our North Woods or working in my garden during “bug season”, which unfortunately corresponds to planting season. The peskiest insects are the blackflies, but they don’t carry disease (I hope) and only drive you insane and itchy. The mosquitoes here do not carry tropical diseases like West Nile or Zika because they are a different breed, but one still doesn’t want to be eaten alive.
    For a milder repellent, I have success with a natural product spray made from distillants and oils such as euchalyptus, lavender, basil, pennyroyal, and tea tree oil, its effect does not last as long as DEET, but is OK for kids, and smells “interesting” . I buy the spray at a local Farmer’s Market. Ticks are spreading into the area thanks to global warming, so I guess I’ll have to keep a look out for them too.

  3. Since I work outside here at my place in SE Michigan all spring, summer and fall, I do use mosquito protection. I tested the Sawyer picardin and Repel Lemon Eucalyptus both recommended by Consumer Reports. I found that Cutter’s Deep Woods stuff which I have used for years works the best. I think of it as my summer scent.

  4. Not sure about letting the hair down; when I walk the woods with my brother, he always has his legs full with ticks, while mine remain clean ( He is a hairy guy and I am am a shaving lady). Maybe it is true that they connect to the skin slower, while tripping over the hairs. But the hairs also make it easier to get a hold on you in the first place.

  5. I don’t think we should do anything further to prevent people from going outdoors; they already don’t. Keep in mind just because you have a tick or mosquito bite, your chances per bite of it transmitting disease are still quite small. Also, the Zika virus is really no more dangerous to us than any other mosquito borne virus UNLESS you are pregnant. Yes, protect – I live in an area with mucho mosquitoes and ticks and do use DEET and the protective clothing – but don’t let it keep you from doing what you love.

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