Dear Vanessa,

I'll be going to Alaska soon. My biggest concerns are bears, mosquitoes and the governor — not necessarily in that order.  I hear the mosquitoes are savage.  Any ideas about a natural insect repellent I can use while there?

— Mary

Dear Mary,

Here is my completely unbiased, 100-percent guaranteed, environmentally sound advice: Take me with you.

My expertise in the field of mosquitology makes me the perfect travel companion. Selflessly putting my knowledge of mosquito needs and desires to work, I offer you my own tender flesh to use as bait. I will do everything possible to make myself irresistible, effectively diverting them from you. First, the sweet, floral scents: perfumes, hair products, sunscreens, moisturizers and fabric softeners. Then, go for the potassium — lots of it. Meat, banana, melon, “sports drinks,” milk, potato and tomato will be the only things I eat, all with a good shake of salt (mosquitoes love sodium). Exercise is really the key: mosquitoes cannot resist lactic acid … or carbon dioxide. Mmmm, it just reeks of fresh, pumping blood.

This flowery-sweet, potassium, and sodium-based lactic acid, carbon dioxide-heavy bait is best presented against a dark background. That simplifies packing: mosquitoes are attracted to dark clothing. (Very Goth.)

With little planning, a true mosquito lovefest can easily be arranged. Still water is needed for breeding. A bucket, birdbath, toys or anything else where a small puddle of water can form will do the trick. Once hatched, most species prefer to avoid the high noon sun, and they don’t fly well where there are strong air currents (wind or a breeze). So, on an early morning, late evening or night encounter by stagnant water and still air, panting heavily in dark clothes and having eaten salt-encrusted potassium goodness and oozing a chemical cloud of sugary floral scent … I will be your bait.

(Have I mentioned, I REALLY want to visit Alaska?)

In the unlikely event that the bait-and-lure strategy doesn’t work, I will come equipped with a full defensive arsenal. Plants that have naturally repellent properties make up the majority of that arsenal. They can be found in gardens or farmers markets or bought as essential oils. Eucalyptus, cedar, geranium, peppermint, lemon grass, fennel, catnip and rosemary plants in addition to tea tree, castor and soybean oils are all readily available natural repellents. Lemon eucalyptus and soybean are often considered the most effective of the bunch, and peppermint oil is reported to also kill mosquito larvae. At least one study found catnip to be 10 times more effective at repelling mosquitoes than DEET.

Needless to say, DEET is not an option in this battle. As a rule I don’t feed my skin anything classified as a pesticide. And there’s too much controversy surrounding the safety of DEET to justify its use.

It is standard in the industry to measure a repellent’s effectiveness by how long it lasts rather than how well it works. A fennel, geranium and soybean mixture is likely a better repellent than DEET, but it will have to be reapplied more often. Some people may have been turned off to natural options because the most commonly marketed repellent -- citronella –- only remains effective for a short time. Don’t worry, I will be there to reapply your repellent as often as necessary.

I usually buy bug spray off the shelf, but on occasion make my own by diluting the essential plant oils with water, vegetable oil (preferably soybean) or alcohol. Apparently, witch hazel and apple cider vinegar can also be used as a base. I often just mix the essential oils with an unscented skin cream.

They won’t be helpful for your (our?) trip to Alaska, but consider some long-term strategies in the mosquito wars:

• Incorporate repellent plants into your landscape.

• Make your house and your neighborhood home to animals that eat mosquitoes. Purple martins, frogs, bats, guppies and dragonflies all feast on mosquitoes.

• Get rid of standing water. Clean gutters, tip over buckets, bowls and anything else that collects water.

• Don’t use pesticides or bug-zappers. These indiscriminant killers are likely to kill more beneficial, mosquito-eating animals than mosquitoes.

I understand if you can’t take me to Alaska as your personal mosquito trap and applier of repellent. That’s OK. It’s true that I have always wanted to go to Alaska, and that it is one of only two states I have never visited, and that I really, really want to go before global warming turns Anchorage into the new Austin, but I’m sure you have some perfectly good (whatever) reason for not bringing me along.

Do, though, take this last thought to heart in your battle against mosquitoes and governors: Mosquitoes are no laughing matter. Every year, 500 million people are infected with mosquito-borne illnesses and at least 2.5 million die from those infections. And the fact that mosquitoes are showing up in larger numbers, earlier in the season, and in places previously too cold or dry for them to survive is not just alarming, it’s deadly. You may be bitten by a first-generation mosquito, hatched and thriving in areas of Alaska that have never seen mosquitoes. The real battle against mosquitoes is the battle to stabilize Earth’s climate.

A quick search will get you more information about the impact of global warming on mosquitoes. Two that are specific to Alaska can be found here (PDF) and here.

I'm packed. When do we leave?


Got a question? Submit a question to Mother Nature and one of our many experts will track down the answer.

Photo: blamb/iStockphoto