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Sight, Smells and Sweat: How to Avoid the Bites and Stings of Summer Season

Why some people attract pesky insects more than others; 5 ways to reduce your pest appeal

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Don’t tell my ex-husband, but I used to take secret satisfaction in mosquitoes preferring him over me. You see, years ago, when we renovated our house, I wanted a screened-in porch. He wanted to be able to see the sky — it’s tough to take a stand against stargazing — so our deck offered no protection from insects. Thus, when the darned mozzies made beelines right toward him, I couldn’t help but feel the cosmic marital scales tipped back into balance. 

As it turns out, I am pettier than a mosquito. Their tastes, entomologists at the National Institutes of Health have learned, are based on a pastiche of blood type, metabolism, exercise (sweat), shirt color, and beer consumption, not lightly buried resentment. And other biters — bees, wasps, hornets, and certain spiders — have personal preferences, too. You can take simple steps to make your home life bite- and sting-free. 

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Let’s start by accepting that if there are smells and sights that insects love, there must be others that they loathe. We can’t change our blood types, and perish the thought that I would suggest you pour that artisanal IPA down the sink. Nay. Instead, your job is to make your skin, your clothing and your surroundings as unattractive as possible to whichever critters you’re trying to dodge.

First, consider personal alterations. To change your body’s odor to avoid mosquitoes, bees, wasps, and hornets you can slather yourself in scents like cinnamon, peppermint, cedar, citronella and lavender. Bees, wasps and hornets like the smell of bananas, so leave that banana shampoo on the shelf until the snow flies. Spiders dig the smell of sweaty socks; I will go as far as to suggest that not wearing sweaty socks around is a solid year-round practice regardless. 

Enterprising companies have created luxury organic products to keep biters at bay. A quick online search will help you shell out as much as $30 for 2 ounces of luxury bug repellents concocted of essential oils like bergamot, orange, lemon and litsea, which is a type of shrub belonging to the laurel family. You can also check out the chemically heavy-hitting DEET-based repellants. In the early 1990s, there was a controversy over potential harm from DEET, but the Centers for Disease Control and the Environmental Protection Agency now says it’s safe and effective. Another popular ingredient to watch for is picaridin, a synthetic compound created to resemble black pepper.

Next, you can color-coordinate your outfit to repel bugs. Researchers at the University of Washington have concluded that wearing red, orange, black and cyan attracts mosquitoes to your body. They also deduced that mosquitoes avoid green, purple, blue and white. Given that cyan — an attractor — is a mix of blue and green — repellants — I found this color-coding confusing and probably not the best method. Imagine the person sitting next to you wearing a light, repelling color, but glistening with insect-attracting sweat? I’d think their skin’s buffet of lactic acid and ammonia would trump your cyan T-shirt any day of the week.

Unsurprisingly, unlike mosquitos, all those bees, wasps and hornets love bright colors (think flowers). There doesn’t seem to be a scientific consensus on what colors repel spiders, although they are drawn to green. In sum: Light colors seem the safest bet across the board.

If you are planning to sit outside, you can also bug-proof your environment, not just your body. Light a few citronella candles, which repel a wide array of flying pests. (Bonus: Spiders dislike citrus, citronella’s distant cousin.) For a more permanent solution, you can integrate mosquito-repellent plants like lavender and marigold in your garden or in pots near sitting areas. However, since bees like bright flowers, when you select new plants, you’ll have to prioritize. If you plant repellant flowers, you can sprinkle cuttings from those plants around your sitting areas to release more of those oils.

If you’re having a meal outside, cover the food as much as you can. Bees will come for your watermelon and your sugary soda, as will ants. The presence of insects can, in turn, draw those spiders back into the mix, so best to use lids or foil wherever possible. 


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Pro tip: Never leave standing water outside! When water becomes stagnant, with no aeration or movement, it becomes prime real estate for mosquito breeding. According to the CDC, eggs hatch in submerged water in as little as five days.  So, after a rain, take a moment to knock the water out of any outdoor buckets, barrels or toys.

If none of that works for you and you’ve been bitten or stung to bits, you can reach for a home remedy. Slap an ice cube on a bite or sting to reduce inflammation. A homemade baking soda paste can soothe itches and stings. And the Farmers’ Almanac suggests trying nongel minty toothpaste as a salve; its menthol helps cool all kinds of bites.

I’ll be trying out many of these tips in the coming weeks. None is particularly onerous, and combined they should provide a high degree of protection. But honestly, I still wish I had a screened-in porch.

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