When we think about the warm summer months we tend to think of the time we spend outdoors, the weather, the lush flowers and trees, and perhaps the variety of birds enjoying the same scenery. We don’t usually think about the negatives of these warm, happy months. Once the days get longer and the sun gets higher, we see, hear and feel growth all around us. From blooming flowers, seasonal songbirds, and buzzing bees. These signs of spring and summer would be considered the pros of the warm months, but with these pros, comes cons. The cons of spring and summer may consist of pesky ‘bugs’ that buzz around our heads and bite us while we are trying to enjoy ourselves outdoors. This can create a very unpleasant time, especially when we are aware of the parasites and diseases mosquitoes can carry, and the itchy reactions we may develop from these insect bites.
The issue that we grapple with now is that many ‘bug’ deterrent options contain toxic chemicals that leach into our soils and bioaccumulate in various organisms. This creates a trophic cascade (ripple effect), eventually and certainly becoming harmful to wildlife, and human health (Pope, K. 2019). Instead of using pesticides, lawn sprays, or even altering the natural environment on your property to rid of biting mosquitoes and flies, there are many other options to help deter these insects while maintaining a natural and native landscape. With having a natural property, you are promoting wildlife to live amongst, and utilize your land, therefore helping you with pest control! It’s a win-win!
Let’s explore some tips for mosquito and black-fly control.
1. Like Indigenous people did, we can use smoke to limit mosquitos in surrounding areas
Ojibwe people living in southern Ontario used “smudges” to ward off mosquitoes. These smudges consisted of lighting piles of sticks and damp leaves on fire to create a smoldering effect that would create a dense smoke for hours. This technique was the most common way of ridding mosquitoes, and was presumably effective (B. George-Jackson, pers. comm., May 11, 2021). There is also literature stating that many Ojibwe groups who harvested wild rice would use the fire for drying rice to keep mosquitoes away (Vennum, T. 1988).
Is there anything specific we can burn to help keep mosquitoes away?
Yes! There are many natural plants and products that are know to be especially effective:
- Bay leaves
- Used coffee grounds
- Spruce sap
- Egg cartons
- Tim Hortons’ cup holders
2. Do not clear large tracts of land for the purpose of ‘pest control’
Indigenous communities are one with the natural world. Land is part of their identity and culture as much as it is an economic resource. These ancient communities relied and still do, on collective lands for agriculture, livestock grazing, water, food, medicines, materials and more. The land and natural features were, and still are valuable resources. When it came to pest control, they did not clear large tracts of forest that are home to mosquitos, ticks, flies etc. for the purpose of preventing them. They used other strategies that were more effective, required less labour, and did not disturb the natural world (L, Notess, 2018). Also, the displacement of natural resources highly disrupts community structures and traditions, leading to the loss of sacred and cultural sites (L, Notess. 2018). Today the removal of plants and subsequent sprays, effectively plays “jenga” with foodwebs, and alters pollinators, fishes, and entire suites of species. The value of large sections of naturally covered land and habitats to society and human health in Canada, outweighs the issues revolving around a few pesky bugs.
When native plants and trees are removed, this makes room for invasive species to take over, and these plants flourish in these open conditions. Invasive plant species spread faster than native plants, and always require more time, money, and energy to control. These invasive species can also push out an area’s indigenous animal species and are partially to blame for their extirpation and extinction. This decreases the biodiversity of an area, and can upset the delicate balance of an ecosystem that relies on its native plants and animals to maintain the areas’ overall health. Furthermore clearing of native vegetation for residential development ahs been linked to the proliferation of white-footed mice, which then carry ticks that carry Lyme Disease. The land clearing also removes natural predators of white footed mice and thus the cycle of invasive species and disease continues. Finally, land clearing not only puts a strain on native animal populations, but on Earth itself. By removing large portions of forests, the land is being left exposed, which then causes soil erosion, and can lead to flooding (Leach, L. 2017).
There are many negative and devastating effects to land clearing, that will cause more harm in the long run, and eventually put the landscape and human health at risk.
3. By removing key vegetation and natural features you may be removing habitat for important wildlife that feed on mosquitoes and flies.
Clearing land and removing vegetation will not help with mosquitos, flies, and ticks! In fact, removing these natural features means you may be removing valuable habitat for wildlife that feed on mosquitoes and other “pest” insects.
Wetlands provide habitat and feeding grounds for birds, fish, amphibians, and insects. They are also conveniently perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Interestingly enough, mosquitoes spend the majority of their life in water. Some prefer clean water, and some prefer dirty water (Canadian Wildlife Federation, 2021). Thankfully, a healthy functioning wetland supports a wide variety of natural mosquito predators which help keep mosquito populations under control (Canadian Wildlife Federation, 2021).
Natural mosquito eaters are many and diverse; insects, spiders, hydras, copepods, birds, bats, fish and amphibians (C. M. Collins, et. al, 2017). Surprisingly, when it comes to their adult life-stage, dragonflies feed on approximately 4,000 mosquitoes each night; bats consume approximately 10,000 flying insects (including mosquitoes and black flies); and various songbirds eat up to 14,000 insects.
Some mosquito predators that require natural wetlands and water bodies are:
Dragonflies and Damselflies – Dragonfly nymphs and adults both feed on mosquitoes. Adult dragonflies are sometimes called “mosquito hawks” because of their appetite for mosquitoes. Damselflies also feed on mosquitoes, and both can be found living in permanent waters that have aquatic vegetation.
Water striders – Water striders live on the surface of water. They use their front legs to grasp prey such as mosquito larvae and midges.
Water boatmen – These aquatic insects are both scavengers and predators. They help the environment around them by breaking down decaying vegetation, but also feed on the larvae of mosquitoes and midges.
Backswimmers – Backswimmers can be found in the shallows of still waters and ponds where they feed on the larvae of mosquitoes and midges.
Insectivorous Birds – Many birds such as swallows, red-winged blackbirds, purple martins and nighthawks feed on mosquitoes as part of their diets.
Bats – Many species of bats feed on thousands of mosquitoes in one night. A big brown bat can eat up to 1000 mosquitos in one hour (Wray, Amy K., et al. 2018).
If you would like to add a natural feature to your property to deter mosquitos, consider planting a dragonfly garden!
Planting flowers and shrubs such as Black-Eyed Susan, Swamp Milkweed, and Joe-Pye weed among others will attract dragonflies in their adult stage of life and will help significantly in reducing the amount of mosquitos around your home. An individual dragonfly can eat hundreds of mosquitoes each day, and among that, they are harmless to humans. Not only are they doing their job in limiting mosquitos, they are also a joy to observe around the yard (SCARCE, 2019).
4. By adding night lighting you are creating constant evening conditions and are now attracting more mosquitoes
When you leave lights on at night, you are attracting hundreds of insects to your yard and home, and sometimes even inside your house. The reason why so many night-time bugs can be found around these lights is because many of them utilize the stars and moon at night to navigate. When they see artificial lighting such as street-lights and porch lights, they get confused and this causes them to start circling the light. Mosquitoes on the other hand utilize light to help them navigate through their environments (Pest Strategies. 2021).
Not only does night-lighting contribute to swarms of flying bugs at night, UV lighting at any time of day attracts black flies and mosquitoes (Allan et al., 1987). These same UV lights can also be found in various bug-zappers. Except, research has shown that most bug zappers do little to eliminate mosquitoes. In fact, they are more likely to kill beneficial insects and, or harmless insects that provide food for birds, bats and fish (Nascri. RS, et al.,1983). In 1977, researchers from the University of Guelph conducted a study to determine how effective bug zappers were at killing mosquitoes and reducing mosquito populations. The results showed that only 4.1% of the insects killed in the bug zappers were female mosquitos, and therefore biting mosquitoes. During the study, they also concluded that yards with bug zappers had more female mosquitoes than those without bug zappers, so consider this next time you think about buying a bug zapping light.
A similar study was conducted at the University of Notre Dame in 1982 that concluded comparable results. During the study, on an average night, a single bug zapper in South Bend, Indiana, killed 3,212 insects, but only 3.3% of the dead insects were female mosquitoes. This specific study also proved UV lighting attracted more mosquitoes to the area, leading to more mosquito bites. After 11 days of repetitive bug zapper operation, mosquito biting rates were not reduced. This is because humans are more attractive to mosquitoes, because of our exhalation of carbon dioxide (CO2) (Debbie Hadley, D. 2019).
5. Pesticides and lawn sprays (even those touted as natural) may bioaccumulate and impact fish and birds, and can be harmful to children and pregnant women.
An easy problem solver to rid of lawn and property pests is a quick spray of pesticide. Little do we realize, or maybe even turn a blind eye to, is the fact that these pesticides contain harmful chemicals (Tuttle. M, 2018). These sprays typically cause more long-term problems than they solve, because the chemicals in the lawn sprays actually kill natural mosquito and fly predators more than they do the pests themselves. Over time, insects, fish, bats, and birds die out while mosquitoes start to develop a resistance to these sprays. They end up multiplying in ever larger numbers in a losing battle often referred to as “the pesticide treadmill” (Tuttle. M, 2018). The mosquitos will slowly become used to these sprays and the chemicals seem to not have the same effect on them anymore, and therefore require a larger quantity or increased toxicity to help the control. At this point it becomes extremely threatening to the environment, economic and human health (Tuttle. M, 2018).
There are many pesticides ‘designed’ for home and garden settings but are non-specific to what type of pest it targets. This creates an issue because this non-specific spray means they are effective on all bugs – the ones you want to kill and unfortunately the bugs you really don’t want to kill. For instance, if you’re having a problem with aphids, a non-specific pesticide won’t just kill the aphids, it will kill everything that comes into contact with the pesticide-treated plant. This poses a serious threat to pollinators such as bees and butterflies that may also utilize those plants (Tuttle. M 2018).
Consistent use of lawn sprays can also lead to toxic chemicals leaching into our groundwater, lakes and then into our larger water systems (Perez-Lucas, G. et. al. 2018) where fish can be impacted directly or indirectly. Long-term exposures to pesticides can cause developing fish larvae to have abnormalities or mutations, and acute exposure can cause more extreme effects such as immediate fish die-offs (Beyond Pesticides. n.d.).
Birds can have a direct exposure to harmful chemicals by ingesting seeds that have been treated with pesticides. They can also absorb harmful chemicals indirectly from eating small insects that have ingested pesticides themselves, leading to secondary poisoning. Another way birds can be impacted is by the decline in insect populations from the application of these sprays. When the insect population has a die-off from a chemical spray, this once reliable, and natural food source for birds is now completely gone or extremely limited (Beyond Pesticides. n.d.).
Human Health Risks of Chemical Sprays
Even though we may take the suggested safety protocols given on the spray labels and we wear our personal protective equipment while applying pesticides, we forget about any exposure post spray. We may also rely on the term “natural” to feel safe about having sprays applied. However, you will note that there is a window of time after a pesticide application when you must stay off your lawn to avoid being exposed to these hazardous chemicals. However, once the lawn is deemed ‘safe’ to use again, pets and children are still at a high risk due to the fact they play directly in the grass. Pets are known to chew on treated grass, or lick their coats, which may have toxic chemicals on them. With children, they have a higher risk of developing health effects from the exposure than adults because their internal organs are still developing and maturing (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and American Academy of Pediatrics. 2020).
Exposure to pesticides could increase your chances of having a miscarriage, a baby with birth defects, low birth weight, fetal death, or other serious complications. Some pesticides also may be able to pass into breast milk. (Council on Environmental Health Pediatrics December 2012,).
Many studies have shown that lawn sprays can drift into our homes where they then contaminate indoor surfaces and air, exposing children and pets to levels 10 times higher than pre-application (Beyond Pesticides. n.d.). An eye-opening fact is that most shelf bought pesticides are linked to more problems than we are aware of, and if we did, these companies might even go out of business.
“Of the 30 most commonly used lawn pesticides, “16 are linked with cancer or carcinogenicity, 12 are linked with birth defects, 21 with reproductive effects, 25 with liver or kidney damage, 14 with neurotoxicity, and 17 with disruption of the endocrine (hormonal) system. Of those same 30 lawn pesticides, 19 are detected in groundwater, 20 have the ability to leach into drinking water sources, 30 are toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms vital to our ecosystem, 29 are toxic to bees, 14 are toxic to mammals, and 22 are toxic to birds.” (Beyond Pesticides. n.d.)
The new all natural sprays are not too much better, as they are still harmful to pregnant women, children, and can also result in the same resistance by mosquitoes, as well as leach, runoff and/or bioaccumulate in water, affecting fish and other aquatic species.
6. Removing bugs by mass spraying or habitat alterations results in the removal of food for fish and birds, which then removes food sources for larger mammals, including humans.
The issue with lawn sprays is that they are like an iceberg in water. The tip of the iceberg represents the immediate effects (the visual appearance of little to no bugs on your property), but there is more to it than what we can see. The underwater part of the iceberg represents the effects that ripple up and down the natural food chains, causing a trophic cascade. Pesticides can make their way into aquatic ecosystems through run-off from a single application (such as a “pulse” from an agricultural area), or in low doses over the course of several weeks (as in common mosquito control efforts) (Toher. D. 2018)
When there are high levels of pesticides and fertilizers entering into a stream or waterway, there can be significant trophic reshuffling (re-ordering of the foodweb). Starting with population declines of important macroinvertebrates and detritivores (Toher. D. 2018). The loss of these organisms results in less food for larger animals (fishes and amphibians) that are higher on the food chain. Once these animals have been affected, the toxins can then flow upwards to affect other predator species (birds, otters, bears, foxes etc.) The loss of important detritivores leads to lower rates of decomposition in aquatic habitats which significantly impacts nutrient cycling, a critical ecosystem service (Toher. D. 2018).
7. For a chemical free repellant, use wind or a breeze from a fan to circulate air and keep weak flying mosquitoes away!
Have you ever noticed on windy days, there seems to be almost no mosquitoes? Joe Conlon, a technical adviser of the American Mosquito Control Association stated that this is because mosquitos are weak fliers and when it comes to a stiff breeze, they cannot compete. With this in mind, in 2003, a study was conducted in a central Michigan wetland where there was an abundance of mosquitoes. An electric fan was used to generate wind to test the theory about wind displacing mosquitoes in a small area (Hoffmann, E.J., Miller. R. J., 2003). The results found that wind was an effective method for deterring mosquitos and other airborne pests. There were a few reasons why this strategy works. Firstly, it is quite obvious, but the winds prevent the pests from circling and landing. Secondly, a fan dilutes and disperses the carbon dioxide we exhale, and as we know, mosquitoes are attracted to us because of this chemical. Lastly, the wind from a fan also cools you off, so sweat (which contains lactic acid and body heat) which attracts mosquitoes, will not be as dense in the vicinity (Hoffmann. E.J., Miller. R. J., 2003).
Conlon suggests setting up a fan wherever you might be sitting outdoors. Keep the airflow directed low, below table level, or leg level because some species of mosquito (including those that carry Zika) tend to prefer lower extremities to bite and hide underneath outdoor furniture. The American Mosquito Control Association recommends using fans as practical means of protecting humans and pets from mosquitoes in a backyard setting.
This strategy is not practiced often but it is highly recommended to keep weak flying mosquitos away from your sitting area and pets.
8. Don’t forget about other personal items such as bug nets and screened in spaces to gain liberty
For a safe, and environmentally friendly approach to reducing bug bites consider using mosquito nets (hats and jackets) for personal wear. These are the safest methods that will not harm any wildlife, habitats or human health.
Another option is creating a space that will be mostly bug-free. Installing a screened in gazebo or tent will help you gain liberty in any natural setting without removing key vegetation and wildlife habitat. You can feel one with nature and the outdoors, while you are protected from any and all flying insects. These screened in spaces come in various shapes and dimensions and will also protect you from the rain! Another bonus about these tents is that they are temporary and you can take them down and move them to wherever you choose.
Here is an idea:
Plant native wildflower gardens around your screened in gazebo! This will invite a variety of “good” insects to visit your yard, while you can enjoy watching the wildlife around you and stay pest free. Just don’t forget to zip the screen!
9. Most bugs are also pollinators
Even though you may want to get rid of any pesky insects that bite, keep in mind that it is quite hard to target just those ones. The majority of flying insects have a very important role, and that role is pollination. Just as bees do, dragonflies, moths, butterflies, flies and more feed on pollen from flowering vegetation and sometimes very specific flowers. These pollen helpers play an extremely critical role in the health and wellbeing of humanity. Without pollinators, we would not have much of the food we eat today.
Did you thank a pollinator today? Because three-quarters of the world’s flowering plants and about 35% of the world’s crops depend on pollinators! One out of every three bites of food we eat is because of our helpful pollinators (USDA. n.d.). Bees and other insects produce $20 billion worth of products annually, just alone in the USA (O’Hara, N. n.d.).
10. Each parcel of land counts! How you manage your property contributes to the demise of the highlands and the sustainability of the local environment
Everyone must work together to protect wildlife habitats and sustainable environments. We can do this by creating and preserving a healthy and natural landscape in our own backyards. In fact, how you manage your property affects neighboring lands and species composition in the vicinity. Think of the downtown area or suburbs of a busy city. Do you picture wildlife when you think of these areas? Probably not. The removal of native flora is also the removal of native fauna. The chances of seeing wildlife are slim to none in these areas.
For those that live outside of the city lines and have more property to manage, also have more responsibility and influence on the overall landscape because their land contains more natural features. The conservation of these private land plays a pivotal role in global sustainability (Kamal, S. et. al. 2013). If you own property in the highlands, you can make a conscious commitment to look after your land by developing an understanding and appreciation of the natural and cultural features of your property. Once you are able to identify and appreciate these valuable resources, you are on the way to the preservation of them. This is one of the best ways to ensure that these unique and valuable features of your property remain for future generations. Maintaining a natural habitat not only benefits the overall wellbeing of the local community, it is also creating a pure, untouched, and natural place for your family and future generations to enjoy.
Some tips for sustainable property management:
- Resist the urge to tidy up your property especially in wilder areas and sensitive areas of shorelines. As long as they pose no danger, standing and fallen dead trees should be left where they are. Fallen trees provide invaluable nesting sites, shelter, and hiding places. As they decompose, fallen trees provide essential nutrients to the forest soil for other plants to thrive.
- Naturalize your property wherever possible by either landscaping with native plant species or by allowing an area to grow back on its own. Native species have adapted to local climate and soil conditions and are therefore hardier, requiring little care.
- Consider creating habitat on your property such as basking areas for reptiles, brush piles for creatures to hide in, and small ponds if a water supply is needed.
- Reduce or eliminate the use of pesticides and fertilizers, particularly near water.
- Take the natural landscape into consideration when doing any construction or alterations around your property.
- In the larger picture, lightening your footprint is also the way to go. Easy adjustments can be made that make big differences personally, locally and globally. Using alternative energy sources where possible, recycling, reducing light pollution, choosing alternative modes of travel and even buying locally do a lot to support economic and environmental sustainability at all scales.
- Creating a stewardship plan for your property is an excellent way to learn about and manage your unique property. Site visits and assessments conducted by qualified Biologists will provide you with features and species on your property, and can outline best practices, restoration designs and management options
If you are a resident in the area consider learning about the assets of your property and how they are interrelated with everything around you. If you do your part in conserving a natural landscape, you are helping out in more ways than you can see! If we alter our properties in a drastic way that is unnatural, we will start to lose what makes this place unique and special.
For tourists, visitors and explorers that love the beautiful landscape of the highlands and all the nature-related activities, views, and sounds such as fishing, hiking, birding, camping etc. We also count on you to keep the highlands strong and healthy! You can do your share by being respectful to the land and consider stepping gently wherever you go.
“Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.” – John Muir
Written By: Sarah Jackson
For: The Land Between Conservation Organization
- Tang, C., Davis, K.E., Delmer, C. et al. Elevated atmospheric CO2 promoted speciation in mosquitoes (Diptera, Culicidae). Commun Biol 1, 182 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s42003-018-0191-7
- Vennum, T. (1988). Wild rice and the Ojibway people. United States: Minnesota Historical Society Press.
- https://www.wri.org/insights/indigenous-peoples-losing-land-can-mean-losing-lives May 31, 2018 By Laura Notess
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- Eric J. Hoffmann, James R. Miller, Reassessment of the Role and Utility of Wind in Suppression of Mosquito (Diptera: Culicidae) Host Finding: Stimulus Dilution Supported Over Flight Limitation , Journal of Medical Entomology, Volume 40, Issue 5, 1 September 2003, Pages 607–614, https://doi.org/10.1603/0022-2585-40.5.607
- Conservation on private land: a review of global strategies with a proposed classification system Sristi Kamal,Małgorzata Grodzińska-Jurczak &Gregory Brown Pages 576-597 | Received 12 Feb 2013, Accepted 11 Dec 2013, Published online: 05 Feb 2014