Mosquitoes are poised to be the biggest party crashers of the summer.
The torrents of rain that fell in May and the above-average temperatures predicted for June and July are perfect conditions for a bumper crop of buzzing bugs. It’s not welcome news. Illnesses caused by mosquitoes, fleas and ticks more than tripled in the United States since 2004, according to a report released this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And more people have concerns about the West Nile and Zika viruses.
“With this much rain, we’re going to have the perfect storm: lots of standing water and lots of mosquitoes,” says Lee Roeder, general manager of Strosniders Hardware in Bethesda, Maryland, which stocks dozens of anti-mosquito products, including head nets and purse-size essential-oil repellents.
So, if you’re hosting a family reunion, graduation party or just a simple backyard barbecue, you’ll need a battle plan. Removing standing water on your property from plant saucers, clogged gutters and garden containers (potential breeding sites) is as important as stringing party lights and stockpiling ice. There’s an array of products marketed to help deal with mosquitoes and other annoying flying critters: sprays, herbs, zappers, citronella, coils, lanterns, candles, oils, dunks, fogs, torches, table-top diffusers, wipes, lotions and one-time yard treatments. (For advice on using repellents safely, check out the Environmental Protection Agency’s website, epa.gov.)
Consumers have mixed feelings about various types of repellents (just scroll down to the reviews on any product page online), and research shows similarly mixed results. Solutions that work for some don’t work for others.
“I can understand why people look for different types of repellents,” says Joseph Conlon, spokesman for the American Mosquito Control Association, “but DEET is the gold standard by which all others are judged, because of repellency tests, and it’s been around for 60 years.” Although some people continue to have reservations about DEET (especially in regard to children, pets and pregnant women), Consumer Reports testers have addressed many of these concerns and report that “the chemical is safe and effective when used as directed.”
Event planners and caterers say bug control strategy is now a standard item on client checklists.
“It’s a timely topic. When a party is out-of-doors, everyone wants to know how to handle it,” says Lynn Easton, founder and creative director of Easton Events, a special-events firm in Charlottesville, Virginia and Charleston, South Carolina. “You don’t want your guests eaten to death.”
Easton says she brings insect repellent in different forms to her gatherings. “I do a pretty little tray outside with sprays and organic [repellent] bracelets, and sometimes herbs and essential oils such as peppermint, lavender and cedarwood,” she says. The bracelet she swears by is the Parakito Mosquito Repellent Wristband, which is made with seven natural oils including citronella, rosemary and clove, and is refillable. (Easton recently wore them on her ankles at a wedding she was staging in the Dominican Republic.) She also puts several types of repellent wipes and a selection of sprays in the bathrooms. Sometimes she lights citronella votives and torches around the party space.
Hosts can also minimize mosquitoes, Easton says, by being mindful of any floral decorations (they shouldn’t smell too sweet) and avoiding certain hors d’oeuvres (platters of ripe cheese left out in the sun will attract mosquitoes, especially with soft cheeses such as brie and limburger).
Mosquitoes and no-see-ums are party poopers that can shut a bash down. “If guests are swatting themselves all the time, they get very annoyed,” says Bill Homan, co-founder of Design Cuisine caterers in Arlington, Virginia. “That doesn’t make for a good party.” For years, Homan has relied on Bounce dryer sheets (in the Outdoor Fresh scent), which scientists have studied for their gnat-repelling properties. The sheets are tied to the narrow legs of his catering tables, under the tablecloths. Homan says many clients prefer products made with plant oils, and he often offers trays of repellent bracelets for guests, such as the Cliganic Insect Repellent Band, made with oils including geraniol, lemon grass and citronella. “Especially when we do picnics, I tell people to use a bracelet,” Homan says. “The bugs just keep coming out of the grass, and it’s hot and sweaty and can be very uncomfortable.
Allison Jackson, owner and lead event planner of Washington’s Pineapple Productions, has ideas for many different kinds of clients, including those who want to avoid using DEET products or yard sprays. Her strategies include putting fans around the party area and “incorporating herbs that work naturally to repel mosquitoes – peppermint, lemon balm, lavender.” You can use them in flower arrangements or buy them in pots to help repel mosquitoes and bees. For her parties on hot, sticky summer evenings, she has another natural refreshing idea. “To make guests feel more comfortable, we take cool washcloths scented with lavender and pass these out. The scent also works as a natural bug repellent.”
To avoid attracting bees, Jackson says to avoid displaying any sweet-smelling flowers such as peonies, garden roses or lilies. And stay away from serving sugary drinks such as lemonade.
“We try and do some preemptive things,” Jackson says. “But of course, the most effective way to plan for an outdoor party is to hire an exterminator to spray the area a few days before the event.”
The demand for one-time party sprays is growing, says Damien Sanchez, owner of DC Mosquito Squad. Last year, the company did one-time sprays for 434 special events inside the Beltway. The cost: about $200 to $250 to spray one acre. “One application lasts several weeks. It starts to diminish after that,” Sanchez says. “We prefer to spray three to four days beforehand.” For mosquitoes, ticks and stink bugs, the company sprays a combination of pyrethroids, which are synthetic chemical versions of oils found in chrysanthemum flowers. (Note that pyrethroids will kill ants, bees, spiders, ladybugs and other beneficial insects as well.)
Janice Parker, a landscape architect in New York and Greenwich, Connecticut, believes that “the best bug protection is on yourself.” She recommends repellent bracelets and herbal scents sprayed on ankles, feet and even hats. “You can use something like rosemary spray on a tablecloth, and it’s a pleasant smell that I like better than citronella,” she says. She also suggests throwing some fresh rosemary on your grill when cooking. Another piece of advice that should be obvious: Don’t wear a perfume that smells like flowers.
It’s always a smart idea to tell guests in your invitation that your gathering is going to be outdoors. You can also email or text people the day of the party to confirm. Guests can then choose whether to wear long-sleeve shirts, long pants or socks.
“Telling people in advance lets people plan their own strategy for dealing with the mosquito issue,” Homan says. “They’ll really appreciate the advance notice for a lot of reasons. At outdoor parties, people sometimes come up to me and say, ‘I wish I had known this party was going to be in the grass. I have my brand-new shoes on.’ ”