The plan was simple. We’re all sick of bugs that pierce our flesh, suck our blood, buzz around our heads and creep up our legs to burrow into our skin. Who needs it?

So we figured we’d talk to hardcore outdoor folk, find out their secrets for repelling bugs and then share those secrets with the rest of you itchy, scratchy, long-suffering lot.

But then an interesting thing happened: we talked to the experts, all right, and plenty of them. And as they shared their thoughts, the theme that emerged is that when it comes to keeping insects away, the secret is that there ARE no secrets.

No magical techniques. No complex potions guaranteed to send bugs fleeing. No single item in your pantry or spice rack guaranteed to cure all of your buggy woes. If you want to skip chemicals like DEET and permethrin there are a few things you can try – Vick’s for ticks has a nice ring to it – but none are as good for chasing away things that creep, crawl, suck and bite.

According to the experts, anyway. And who are those experts? Who are those people who go to battle with the bug world every single day of their neck swatting lives?

How about loggers, those people who toil in rain-soaked woods, stirring up bugs of all kinds with their sweaty bodies and whirring machinery.

“We’re in a wet, swampy area right now so that definitely amplifies the amount of bugs,” said Dylan Luce, of Glen Luce Logging and Chipping in Turner. “And on top of that, it rains at least once a week, keeping the ground moist for the bugs nesting situations.”

Luce’s recommendation is simplicity itself: Deep Woods Off with DEET, a product you can buy just about anywhere and for just a few bucks.

“We use this almost every day when we’re out of the machines,” Luce told us. “Not often do we get out, but this is what we all use. It may not keep them all away, but it definitely helps. I usually spray down my hat and upper body with it pretty good because that’s where the majority of the bugs like to hang out, and we’re not usually afraid to apply more then needed.”

Todd Goucher is both a logger and an ATV trail master in Turner. He probably encounters more bugs on a day-to-day basis than he does people. And like Luce, he says that there’s really no avoiding DEET if you want to keep the pests away – some pests, anyway.

“As far as black flies and mosquitoes on the trails, it’s 100% DEET that keeps them away,’ Goucher said. “Ticks are a different story – nothing keeps them away. While at work I don’t use anything as I’m usually moving too fast and the sound of the chainsaw seems to keeps them away.”

Ryan Kimball, of Kimball & Sons Logging in Poland, is even more minimalist when it comes to insects.

“Honestly we don’t do anything in particular to keep them away,” he told us. “We always have boots and pants on and a shirt and a hard hat. That’s about it. I don’t even own bug spray. When walking in the woods we tend to get a lot of ticks, but we always have on appropriate clothing and I think that’s the most important factor. I think appropriate clothing and just sucking it up is all you can do. We are always moving, so I suppose that helps keep mosquitoes and black flies away.”

Kimball was not the first to suggest clothing over chemicals to keep the bugs out. There are shirts and pants treated with permethrin. There are nets to cover the face, and special hats to keep buzzing pests away from the head. Couple those things with a quick spray of your favorite over-the-counter repellent and you might be able to spend a few hours fishing in relative peace.

“I usually use the Ben’s with DEET,” said Scottie Bragdon, fishing guide and Dag’s Bait & Sports Goods sales associate. “It works really well. I don’t put it on my skin. I usually spray it on my hat and sleeves. That helps with ticks, too.

“If you’re worried about black flies,” Bragdon said. “I use a Buff. It’s like a shirt sleeve that you put over your face. You can fold them in all sorts of weird ways and cover your head and ears. Mosquito head nets, we’re selling a lot of those. Basic bug spray doesn’t work for black flies. They’ll still bite you. You’ve got to block them out.”

Doug Boyd is a fisherman, among other things, and he agrees with all of that. Depending on where you cast your line, a good repellent system can mean the difference between a jolly good time and a miserable one.

“We just got 40 trout on Sunday up in Jackman,” Boyd said. “But the black flies and mosquitoes took turns getting at us.”

Like Bragdon, Boyd prefers a good clothing and DEET combination when he’s out for a day of fishing.

“We wear our bug shirts,” he said. “If you go to Amazon, you can see everything from head wear to some pretty nice cotton shirts. Another thing I’ll wear are neck gators – you pull them on over your head. You can pull them up to the top of your head and it protects your ears, your neck and everything else from bugs. I wore that fishing for a couple of nights. You don’t see a lot of them up here, but they work.”

Boyd, as it happens, is also an avid bird-watcher and gardener. Everything he enjoys, in other words, exposes him to clouds of bugs who want to make a feast out of his flesh and blood. For those things, he’ll take the Ben’s in its iconic orange bottle. The trick is to always have some on hand.

“I have it my fishing gear, I have it in my backpack, I have it in my truck,” Boyd said. “If you’re wearing the bug shirt, the only place you need to put the Ben’s is probably on your hands.”

Judith Ann Marden is another bird-watcher who also camps and kayaks. She’s experimented with all sorts of methods to keep the bugs off her, but in the end, she too is resigned to the same old tricks.

“I try,” she said, “but I just get bitten anyway. I don’t have any exotic or imaginative solutions. Spray-on DEET works best on skin – especially behind the ears and around the neck – and spray-on permethrin for clothes. I tuck my pant legs in my socks when I’m in the tall grass, and wear tick gaiters. But I’m heading off to the north woods this weekend for some camping, and because I know there will also probably be no-see-ums, I’m taking a head net. Even then, they find their way in. Just hoping it will be a little windy in the kayak and on the island where we camp. A nice smoky campfire will help, too.”

Kyle Franklin? He’s a game warden working a beat in the deepest, buggiest portion of Maine: the Lake District near the Allagash Wilderness Waterway.

“The bugs are just as bad here right now,” Franklin told us, “as anywhere in the state. There are places where you either get swarmed by black flies or mosquitoes or both at the same time.”

So what is a game warden to do if he has to be out in the wilderness for a long stretch? Nothing magical, unfortunately. Just a good combination of things, including some good old DEET.

“A bug net is typically a part of my regular uniform during this time of year,” Franklin said. “I usually don’t leave for the day without it on. Or course some good bug spray always comes in handy. I don’t use it a lot, but at times I don’t have a choice. Usually just whatever I have available or what someone else may have available.”

And what if the little bloodsuckers want to follow you home from work?

“The key,” Franklin said, “is to keep the bugs out of the truck and camp if you can help it, but sometimes it feels like they could carry you away. Also a good bug zapper comes in handy when they get in your camp.”

And then there are farmers who spend long hours toiling in the fields. I told a worker at Blackie’s Farm in Auburn that I was on the hunt for that talismanic something that would cure us all of our bug woes.

“When you find out,” said Matt Manson, “let us know! We just use regular bug sprays and have bug nets for if it is really bad, but usually a good breeze up here keeps them down.”

Rich Burton, who runs Specialized Wild Animal Trapping, spends a whole lot of time in the woods – not to mention in bogs, backyards, attics and wherever critters big and small may roam. Does Burton hold the secret?

That would be a big, fat nope.

“I have nothing special,” he told us. “I spray my boots and pants with permethrin and use a bug spray with a high DEET percentage.”

We checked with landscapers who make their living hanging out in places bugs prefer the most, but there were no surprises there, either. In fact, one landscaper said that bugs so dominate the daily war of human flesh, he doesn’t even try to win his battles with them.

“I don’t use anything,” said Roger Castonguay, a Lewiston landscaper. “I perspire so much it just comes off. Every night I have my get-naked-and-check-for-ticks ritual. Suffered from chronic Lyme so I don’t want to go there again. I find six to seven ticks on me a week. Luckily I get them before they feed.”

Jeri Mauer is a professional bird-watcher who just happens to live at the edge of a bog, a well-known breeding ground for mosquitoes. Bugs? Yes, Jeri Mauer knows them well.

“I had Lyme disease a few years ago,” Mauer told us, “so I do try to follow some steps, such as: wear light-colored clothing so ticks can be easily seen; tuck pants into boots or socks; apply DEET around the bottom of my pant legs; do full body check after shower.”

Just about everyone we talked to spoke with a hint of plain annoyance when talking about the usual pests, like mosquitoes and black flies. When it comes to ticks, though, there is a sense of alarm, as well.

Ticks, with the ability to inflict life-threatening disease upon its victims, are on a another level, and the dread of them is confirmed by science – a lab at the University of Maine has tested 500 deer ticks so far this spring and they said 45 percent tested positive for the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. And there are other disease-causing bacteria they carry as well.

“That’s the dangerous part of bugs these days,” said Boyd. “The black flies, no-see-ums and mosquitoes will bother you, but they don’t give you diseases that can debilitate you.” (Actually, mosquitoes can, but the threat is less frequent.)

Entomologist Griffin Dill, who operates “The Tick Lab” at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said this spring has been abnormal.

“The winter lasted longer than usual,” he told a reporter in mid-June. “That pushes back the timeline for insects like ticks.”

Dill’s recommendations were very similar to those of the landscapers, fishermen and loggers: use repellents. Dill recommends buying those that have the active ingredient DEET with a concentration of 20 to 40 percent, and picaridin, a synthetic compound that repels insects, ticks and chiggers.

For ticks specifically, Boyd has a separate list of recommendations.

“Tuck everything in. First of all, tuck your pants into your socks,” he advised. “Ticks climb uphill. If you pull your socks up over your pants, the ticks are on the outside, not on the inside of your pants. Do the same with your shirt; make sure it’s tucked into your pants real good.”

And of course, like everybody else, he performs the “tick check,” a routine that’s become so common, there’s even a country music song about it.

“You do inspections,” Boyd said. “I’ve learned to do a pretty good pirouette in front of the mirror to make sure there’s nothing on me after a day of birding or whatever.”

Still not sold on DEET and other chemical sprays? We did hear quite a lot of tips of more natural bug remedies, although not everybody is sold on them.

“Every other ‘healthier’ alternative has proven absolutely useless,” said Daryn Slover, a Sun Journal photographer who also hikes, kayaks and does other manly stuff in thick bug territory. “DEET is the only way to repel them. Although I am experimenting soaking my shoes, socks and mountain biking shorts with permethrin to shoo away the ticks.”

So, what are the natural alternatives?

Tom Slivinski, an active outdoorsman from Lewiston, is a fan of Dr. Bronner’s, an all-purpose soap made out of organic ingredients that can be used in place of regular bathing soap, shampoo and deodorant. After all, Slivinski said, combating buggery has more to do with what you DON’T use rather than what you do.

“When you’re going to be out there, don’t use deodorant,” Slivinski advised. “Don’t use smelly soaps or shampoos. Don’t use mousse or gel or whatever it is you put on that pretty coif of yours.”

Dr. Bronner’s, he insists, will clean you up without leaving you fragranced in a way that bugs just love. It smells faintly of peppermint, which is a known turn-off for bugs. Remove the sweet scents, Slivinski said, and half your battle with pestilence is won.

Tracy Clark Gosselin, of Lisbon, prefers a product best known for unclogging congestion from a head or chest cold – and for stinking up an entire room: Vick’s Vaporub, a product that may give you weird flashbacks of childhood days spent home sick in bed.

“I put it on a bandanna and wear that on my head or around my neck and on the tops of my socks, etc.,” Gosselin said. “Pant legs get tucked into socks or boots. It’s like gearing up to do battle – which I suppose, we are.”

A few people recommended a common, tongue-scalding mouthwash for repelling bugs while keeping the breath minty fresh.

“White Listerine,” said Dan York, of Lisbon Falls. “Fill a spray bottle and spray the areas you don’t want bugs – any Listerine works. You can use it on lawns and decks as well. The primary active ingredient is eucalyptol, a derivative of eucalyptus oil.”

“I fill a spray bottle with Listerine,” said Patricia Bernard, of Lewiston, “and spray around my picnic table, around my lawn chairs or around area I am going to work on. It seems to keep the bugs down.”

Bernard said she seldom works outside anymore after suffering a stroke, but before she went down, Listerine was her go-to potion for repelling bugs in a safe manner.

“Before, when I worked in my flower beds, I sprayed the area I was working on and it kept most of the flies away,” Bernard said. “I liked the idea that it’s a solution that’s safe for kids, birds and bees – I didn’t do the whole yard so the bees seem to be OK. It’s great around beach chairs when we go to Range Pond – my husband can take an after-lunch nap without being bothered.”

Linda Doucette Scott, of Lewiston, has a tip that sounds more like a salad recipe than bug repellent, but she swears by it.

“Growing lemon balm, lemon grass, basil and lavender helps keep the bugs down in your yard,” she said. “And I always pinch a couple lemon balm leaves off and run them on my hands and cloths before a walk to keep black flies and mosquitoes at bay.”

And there you have it. Every tip included above will very likely keep bugs away from you to some extent. Will any one of these tricks or any single product be 100 percent effective all the time? Doubtful. There are a whole lot of bugs in the world, and to them, you look and smell as tasty as Thanksgiving dinner.

Insects as a group have been around for 480 million years and they haven’t lasted that long by being wimps. With over a million species of them creeping, crawling and flying around the world, insects will likely outlast humans, which means you might win an occasional battle with them, but you won’t win the war.

The best you can do for now is to try some of these tricks and resign yourself to a summer of swatting, swearing and fancy pirouettes in front of the bathroom mirror.


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