Earthworms’ Castings

With Jean Ponzi

Non-Toxic Mosquito Nix

Our soaked late spring has boosted early fall mosquito populations. Wet soils and persistent pockets of standing water are ideal breeding conditions for generations of insects.

More than just a nuisance, mosquito bites can infect humans with West Nile Virus. This tropical disease affects most people with only mild flu-like symptoms, but for individuals with run-down immune systems, for very young children or adults over 55 (not that old!), West Nile Virus can cause major paralysis, brain damage and even death.
Trust me, you do not want to risk getting this.

The species of mosquito most likely to carry West Nile are active at this time of year. So make this your season to set vigilant habits of mosquito control. Use common sense and non-toxic tools for late summer safety.

Standing Water Cleanup
Mosquitoes evolve through four life cycle stages. Three depend on stagnant water – and only need tiny spaces. Rainfall left in the rim of an overturned bucket will be as fine a breeding haven as a whole pond.

Go out on Bug Control Patrol! Find all the places around your yard where water can collect. Modify them and check them after it rains to dump standing water before mosquito mamas can move in.

Keep your gutters clean! Leaf debris in gutters will dam up rainfall into the perfect habitat for blood-sucking swarms. Gutter cleaning will also prevent water damage to your home. The locust trees around our house dictate gutter cleanout timing. After the locusts bloom in spring we scoop out piles of faded blossoms; when their leaflets finally drift loose each fall, another gutter de-clutter is due. Get out your ladder and your hose!
Sweep out and refill birdbaths every couple of days. I stash an old toothbrush in the nearby hosta bed for a quick-clean when the bowl gets mossy.

Do you keep watering cans filled and ready to spritz your container garden? Empty and refill them regularly. Use a rain barrel? Drop in a piece of “mosquito dunk;” these cakes of biological larvacide won’t harm fish, plants, pets or you, but they will kill off larvae before they hatch into adult mosquitoes.

If you have a real pond in your yard, stock it with mosquito fish, named for the diet they gobble.

Neighborhood Cleanup
Until bugs acknowledge human property lines, a neighborhood approach to mosquito control is essential. Organize your block to learn about and prevent mosquito-breeding hazards. Bring mosquito facts to your next neighborhood meeting, and encourage your neighbors to work together to maintain a safe environment.

Inviting mosquito predators into your neighborhood will improve quality of life for everyone, except mosquitoes. Put up purple martin houses in open spaces. Mount bat houses to some of your trees. One bat can eat 600-1,000 bugs, mosquitoes included, in an hour. That’s beneficial snackin’!

What About Sprays?
Public health agencies can really only do two things to control mosquitoes. They can educate and they can spray. Aerial spraying from slow-moving trucks will kill some adult mosquitoes, but sprays do nothing to stop the larvae from developing into more biting adults. I’m not a supporter of airborne insecticides; they are poisons, after all. But I understand that local officials have to do all they can to control disease. Conscientious neighbor-to-neighbor education and action is a localized alternative to spraying. If you can mobilize this resource in your neighborhood, ask your city government not to spray on your streets.

Catnip Oil – An Alternative to DEET
Most mosquito control instruction recommends using products containing Diethyltoluamide, or DEET, to discourage mosquito biting. The U.S. Army developed DEET in 1946 to protect soldiers in jungle warfare. Exactly how DEET works is unknown, but this is a potent chemical, as product label warnings attest, including warnings about using DEET on children.

In a 2001 presentation to the American Chemical Society, researchers from Iowa State University reported that nepetalactone, the essential oil in the herb catnip, is about ten times more effective at repelling mosquitoes than DEET. Catnip is a leafy plant in the mint family that will bliss out felines, won’t harm you, and fools hungry mosquitoes.
Mosquitoes have special sensors on their bodies, like little hairs, that catch the carbon dioxide molecules given off by our bodies. CO2 attracts the insect to you for a blood meal. When you spray on a product containing nepetalactone, mosquitoes smell a plant instead of a human and buzz off.

Two local products are formulated with catnip oil: Summer Spray from Cheryl’s Herbs in Maplewood and Citronella Mist made by Herbaria (on The Hill). Body chemistry varies person to person, but both of these non-toxic options work for my family and me, for overall insect control. They are both light and don’t feel like a chemical coating on my skin. My slight preference is for the citronella spray; that herbal ingredient also fools (buzzes off) my cat.

Stay Healthy, Summer into Fall!
West Nile Virus is a relatively rare disease, but it only takes one infected mosquito to bump a susceptible individual into peril. Healthy prevention is simple to do. Make cooperative neighborhood efforts to prevent mosquito breeding. Use non-toxic repellant sprays. Reduce stress and take care of yourself to keep your immune system in top tune.
Then get outside and enjoy nature as the seasons change. Nature supports well-being too!

Pick up Jean Ponzi’s weekly Earthworms podcasts at earthworms.kdhXtra.org and tune into her “Growing Green St. Louis” show Saturdays, 3-4 pm, on the Big 550 KTRS-AM.