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Arm yourself for the annual blood feud

City actually the main battleground

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If you ventured outside in Winnipeg this week, you probably enjoyed a close encounter with Aedes vexans, the voracious little bloodsucker most commonly known as the summer nuisance mosquito.

Compared to other mosquito species, A. vexans has an extra-long proboscis that delivers an unusually painful sting - and it doesn't care if you feel it, unlike that sneaky little disease-carrier, Culex tarsalis.

Yep, the mosquitoes are back in town this week and that probably makes you wonder whether they're even worse in the bush, especially as summer holidays beckon.

The short answer: No way. Winnipeg sits on a floodplain. You'll still find bugs outside the Red River Valley, but almost everywhere else has better drainage.

But if you're still concerned about mosquitoes before you hit the trail, here's a little bit of myth-busting advice about how to avoid them:

Personal hygiene

Toward the end of a long paddling or backpacking trip, most people get a little ripe. Sweat doesn't smell, but it does provide an excellent growth medium for the magnificently malodorous bacteria that multiply like crazy in your clothing - which probably won't get washed even if you have somewhere to bathe.

I personally know plenty of wilderness geeks who swear mosquitoes won't bite them once they get stinky. Unfortunately, the precise opposite may be true, says Taz Stuart, the City of Winnipeg's entomologist.

When your body works hard, the perspiration, lactic acid and carbon dioxide you give off actually attracts mosquitoes, Stuart says.

But there's a kernel of truth to the stay-stinky myth: Some deodorants, antiperspirants and other personal cosmetics contain scents that attract mosquitoes. So going au naturel, in terms of cosmetics, may not be a bad idea if you want to hold on to as much hemoglobin as possible.

Mosquito repellents

As most Manitobans learn before the age of three, the best way to keep mosquitoes from sucking your arteries dry - if you choose not to wrap yourself up like a mummy - is to apply a little DEET.

The chemical formally known as N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide is the most effective skeeter repellent on the market, though there's some dispute in scientific circles about how it actually works, Stuart says.

DEET is supposed to keep mosquitoes from biting by confusing the parasites' olfactory receptors. But it's also possible it merely functions as a coating that's uncomfortable for mosquitoes to touch.

"They try to land on you and they bounce off you. It's something they don't like," said Stuart, adding eucalyptus oil may function the same way.

Since DEET is a powerful solvent, it's capable of melting away some plastics and synthetic fabrics, including common outdoor-clothing materials such as rayon and spandex. That's why some people prefer to use herbal repellents instead.

Eucalyptus oil may be the most effective of natural mosquito-fighters. Soybean oil, citronella oil and dozens of other natural repellents also work to some degree - but only for a while, and nowhere near as well as DEET.

Bug-fighting fashion

It's true: Mosquitoes are more attracted to dark clothing. Dress in all-whites like the Man From Glad and you'll probably be bothered less by most mosquito species than if you don a jet black cat burglar outfit.

But bugman Stuart says he's never seen any scientific evidence to suggest darker skin is more likely to be punctured by a mosquito proboscis than light-coloured skin.

In fact, the notion some ethnic groups are more likely get bitten than others may very well be a myth.

There is, however, some evidence to suggest people who travel from one part of the world to another may react more severely to insect bites of any kind, as human beings can adapt to familiar bugs.

Whether that adaptation is physiological or psychological is another issue.

Smoke and smudges

In a confined area, when winds are low, the smoke from doo-doo coils, citronella candles or any other form of combustible substance will keep mosquitoes away, Stuart says. But all bets are off if the winds are high or if you happen to be anywhere where the smoke dissipates.

The key to the effectiveness of any smudge as a mosquito repellent is the concentration of the smoke, not necessarily the substance getting burned.

So go ahead and hang around that campfire. You may still wind up getting bitten if you're not in the direct path of the smoke.

Terrain and timing

This may seem too obvious to bother reading, but the biggest factor that will determine the mosquito situation is where and when you choose to camp.

Swamps and grassy areas that are sheltered from the wind will be buggy. Well-drained areas next to moving water won't be.

That's why the middle of the heavily forested Canadian Shield, where the granite campsites tend to be exposed, is usually less buggy than a back yard in Winnipeg.

Furthermore, late June and July will almost always be buggier than August, which will always be buggier than September, my favourite month for being outdoors in Manitoba.

September has the added bonus of being bereft of the worst pest species of all: homo sapiens. The only thing capable of keeping these horrible creatures away is the complete absence of blinking lights and recorded noise - or the promise of an intelligent conversation.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 19, 2010 D11

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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