At 2 years old, Millie began catching grasshoppers and picking dandelions, discovering the joys of outdoor exploration at her home in Blue Hill. But one big problem cropped up early on. When a black fly or mosquito attacked Millie’s skin, the bite would swell, and a few bites later, she would be stuck inside with a temperature.
Her mother, Nina Fleming, wouldn’t stand for it. Yet her search for an organic insect repellent (uncomfortable with putting chemicals on her young daughter’s skin) turned up only foul-smelling sprays and ineffective solutions.
So after a great deal of research and experimentation, Fleming mixed up her own concoction, which she calls Buggleblue. Six years later, it is the top seller at the Blue Hill Co-op.
“The business was born out of family necessity,” Fleming said. “I was just desperate for something that actually worked … I started basically kitchen-sinking it with essential oils.”
Though much of Fleming’s knowledge comes simply from using these oils in everyday life, one study in particular helped her increase the effectiveness of Buggleblue. Through experimentation, USDA Forest Service researcher Chris Peterson found catnip oil to be extremely effective in repelling insects.
Along with catnip oil, Buggleblue contains distilled water, aloe vera gel, jojoba oil, peppermint oil, lavender oil, rosemary oil, eucalyptus oil, baby soap and geranium oil. You can imagine why her version of repellent smells heavenly.
“I didn’t want to keep a secret recipe or anything, I just want people to know what’s in it,” said Fleming, who lists all ingredients on her website, buggleblue.com. Also on the website is a list of Maine shops where Buggleblue products, priced $10-$16, are sold.
Now 8 years old, Millie uses Buggleblue to safely enjoy the outdoors. Maine’s a buggy place, and while a dry spring has Mainers hoping for a lower pest population, it’s unlikely that people will see much of a change, according to James Dill, University of Maine Cooperative Extension pest management specialist.
“I would expect black flies to be just about how they always are,” Dill said. “Not a lot impacts them. They’re down at the bottom of streams and rivers. Mosquitos, on the other hand, early mosquitoes won’t be as many as they usually are [because they thrive in pools created by melting snow].”
“But that’s all relative,” he continued. “If you usually have a million mosquitoes in your backyard and you only have half a million this year, will you really notice the difference?”
Protection against mosquitoes, black flies and no-see-ums comes in many forms. In addition to organic solutions, such as Buggleblue, there are extremely effective repellents that include DEET, a synthetic oil developed by the United States Army after its experience of jungle warfare in WWII. This chemical can irritate skin (especially damaged skin) and dissolve certain materials (especially synthetic materials that make up expensive outdoor gear). Check the product’s label for warnings and instructions.
Some repellents contain DEET in concentrations up to 100 percent, but Dill said that people should stick to using repellents with 20-30 percent DEET, which will give you maximum protection.
Instead of using lotions or sprays, some people prefer simply donning bug netting clothing, including a head net.
A more recent solution has been made possible by Insect Shield EPA-registered technology, which converts clothing and gear into effective insect protection. Many outdoor clothing companies, such as White Sierra and ExOfficio, use this technology in their clothing and gear. The treatment repels insects from the clothing for up to 70 launderings. This technology is designed to repel not only mosquitoes and black flies, but also ticks. For information, visit insectshield.com.
Still, many Mainers still prefer organic repellents made of natural oils and herbs.
Much like Fleming, Allen Pollock of Windham first concocted ’Skeeter Skiddadler insect repellent out of need. A gardener and computer technician, Pollock suffered as a “bug magnet” while selling his organic produce at farmers markets.
“I want to be safe. I don’t want to be bitten and get all lumpy,” Pollock said. “I have scars on my arms from the times I wasn’t using mosquito repellent. I was scratching, and it got infected, and I don’t need that.
“I had to start thinking seriously about not just dodging bugs, but creating a natural product that’s effective and also a fragrance I’d like.”
In 2007, he came up with the original ’Skeeter Skidaddler product, a concentrate that comes in a 3-ounce bottle that will last a person all summer and into next year, he said. The sunflower oil-based product includes cedarwood, cinnamon, eucalyptus, lemongrass and patchouli. He steered away from the commonly used citronella oil because of its unsavory smell.
“The naturalpaths and herbalists believe it’s the complexity of the ingredients and relationships that actually create the effects,” he said.
Over a three-year period, his sales increased at farmers markets. Last year, when he sold 175 bottles, he decided it was time to sell the repellent in retail stores.
This year, he’s working with a representative in New York City and plans to produce and distribute 15,000 bottles, all from his Gentle Breeze Farm. And next year, he plans to jump up to 75,000 bottles.
Pollock now makes three different repellents.
“One of the human versions has a little bit of patchouli. I like an earthy undertone to a fragrance, just subtle enough where it’s not punching you in the nose,” he said. “The other human version has more lemongrass, a lighter fragrance with higher notes.”
The third repellent he makes for dogs.
Purchase a bottle for $11.95 at tremblingleaf.com.
How to stay tick-free
“In the wild, ticks have a behavior called ‘questing.’ They get on a blade of grass and hold onto it with their back six legs, and their two front legs are out there, waving, looking for something fuzzy to grab onto,” said James Dill, University of Maine Cooperative Extension pest management specialist.
Dill says that ticks were high in population last year, and they’re even worse this year, due to a mild winter and a number of other factors.
“The real problem started in 2010 when we had an explosion of white-footed mouse, one of the hosts in the deer tick two-year cycle,” he said. “Then in 2011, the nuts crop wasn’t very good so a lot of mice died off and ticks were looking for other hosts.”
Deer ticks carry Lyme disease, which they can pass on to their host. Each year, 40,000 cases of the disease are documented in the U.S. alone, and the Maine Center for Disease Control predicts 2012 will be the worst year yet for Lyme disease.
If you want to get a good idea of how many ticks are on your back lawn, drag a white blanket over the grass, especially where the lawn meets the woods. Ticks will cling to the blanket.
Insect repellent with 20-30 percent DEET can help repel ticks, Dill said. But the most effective way of avoiding ticks is to wear long pants and a long-sleeve shirt when outdoors, especially when in the woods or fields.
“You can tuck your pants inside your socks,” said Dill. “Don’t give them a chance to get directly onto your skin.”
He also suggests wearing light-colored clothing so clinging ticks are easier to see. And always check your body for ticks after spending time outdoors. If you do have a tick embedded in your skin, grab it with tweezers close to your skin and slowly pull it out.
“If you give it a yank, you might leave mouthparts behind that can give you an infection,” Dill said. “And never use nail polish or a hot match or cigarette or something like that. They might regurgitate.”
If you do find a tick on your body, it’s always a good idea to call your doctor. You may need antibiotics.
For information on ticks, visit umaine.edu/ipm/ipddl/publications/5047e.
Tools for bug-free outdoor living
• Amazon Lights Garden Incense Sticks are a natural solution for keeping insects at bay. These 12 two-foot incense sticks contain a highly concentrated mixture of citronella, Andiroba, rosemary and thyme. Each stick has up to 2.5 hours of bug-free burn time. Cost: $19.50.
• ThermaCELL Mosquito Repellent Lanterns repel mosquitoes, black flies and no-see-ums. The lantern has a classic look. Each unit comes with 12 hours of protection, repelling insects within a 225-square-foot area, and can be refilled. The lantern, which runs on four AA batteries, produces an ambient light that adds a nice glow to the area. Heat vaporizes the repellent, allowing it to rise into the air. The repellent is allethrin, a copy of a repellent that naturally occurs in chrysanthemum flowers. For information about the lanterns and personal repellent devices, visit thermacell.com. Lantern cost: $29.99. Refill cost: $6.99.
• REPEL Citronella Candle is a traditional, inexpensive way to repel insects from your campground. The candle burns up to 20 hours. Cost: $ 6.75.
• Coghlan’s Mosquito Coils burn like incense but are made with allethrin to repel mosquitos and other flying insects. Each coil burns for 6 hours or more. The stand for the coils is included. This solution only weighs 4.23 ounces. Cost: $2.50.
• The Coleman Citronella Candle Lantern burns and repels insects for up to 40 hours, and with a U-shaped metal handle, it is great for hanging or toting around the campground. Cost: $11.