Easy home-made bug spray

An evening stroll in the garden should be relaxing: it’s a time to check on the ripening tomatoes, snack on a strawberry then squish a bug or too — but too often lately I’ve been chased back inside by a swarm of aggressive tiger mosquitoes who seem to be eagerly waiting for their dinner (me), and who attack the minute I open the back door. I’ve made some bug repellent sun cream, which works well, but if I’m just popping outside to gather a few basil leaves then it seems pointless to spend 5 minutes rubbing it over exposed skin. Today I adapted my recipe, putting the essential oils in a vodka base rather than the water and oil emulsion I used for the cream — I sprayed some on then I offered myself to science and to my mosquito sisters, parading up and down their favorite haunts, brushing against the leaves where they lurk.

Success! I repelled all the mosquitoes — not a single one bit — but the neighbors’ cat still came to greet me as usual.

I will post a more detailed recipe after further testing — but here are the ingredients I used: neem oil, citronella EO, lavender EO, peppermint EO, soy lecithin, and, of course, vodka.

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Bookworm

Unlike the lice and carpet beetles I’ve written about in the past, a bookworm is a good bug to have around. For the past 11 years I’ve been working hard to make two of these, and I wrote precise instructions on raising them here. I’m very excited that this instructable won a prize in the “Are We There Yet?” Challenge on Instructables: a very cool Knex ferris wheel that I got to finish assembling after my younger son drifted off mid-construction to go read a book.

The dreaded phone call

It happened last week. My husband got the dreaded phone call from school, and picked up the boys immediately. When I arrived home, expecting an hour or two of quiet work, I was confronted by all the members of my household, wet, nude, each in very different states of mind. My husband was flustered, my elder son close to hysterics, and my younger son was overjoyed, dancing around and singing, not minding at all the special shampoo which they all had to keep on for ten minutes.

Pediculus humanus. Head lice.

Here I must admit to something shameful: I had been hoping for this day to come, because there were various remedies I wanted to try out. So at first I was a little annoyed that my husband had already bought and applied medicated shampoo which contained pyrethrum extract (the same chemical ancient Roman soldiers rubbed on their heads) and piperonyl butoxide.

Here’s the difference between theory and practice: when you comb your child’s hair and the dandruff which falls out starts to scurry away, the last thing you want to do is start blending an exotic mix of oils and herbs. All rational thoughts about avoiding exposure to poisons fly out the window and you will want to run out and buy anything and everything which will immediately kill, kill, KILL! Still, just because my boys had already been treated with the standard insecticidal soap didn’t mean I couldn’t supplement with my own concoctions.

I had some Neem oil, a dark greenish oil from India, which I’d bought to help relieve eczema symptoms and to make a bug spray for my plants. It repels insects but its strong garlicky smell repels most humans too, which is a plus for lice. Close head to head contact should be avoided, so stinky hair is desirable. But Neem does much more. I couldn’t take the time to mix it up with anything and just rubbed it pure right on both boys scalps. It was a bit itchy at first (it should normally be cut with another oil such as coconut or olive oil) but it went to work quickly: within 20 minutes, the nits, tiny little eggs which female lice glue to the bottom of the hair shaft, were sliding off instead of needing to be yanked out with the hair. By the next day the oil had completely cleared all the dandruff away, which made it much easier to look for the stray louse, the tiny nits and all the teenage nymphs and nymphettes. But there’s more! Neem doesn’t actually kill bugs but it messes with their hormones, preventing them from moulting, which they need to do four times before they can reproduce at the grand old age of 8 to 9 days. This will keep them from making a comeback in case an egg or two escaped notice during the hours spent nit-picking.

Which brings me to the most important line of defense: no matter what chemical you apply there is sure to be one or two resistant bugs, three or four hardy little eggs left. That’s all it takes to start up a new colony. Tie up you own hair, settle down by a good light with a good book, then pick away, checking every single hair on the head, preferably several times in a row, then twice a day for at least a week. The comb above won the gold medal at the 1926 Düsseldorf Health Exhibition, and it’s still the best around. Even so it won’t pull everything out. You’ll need to use your fingernails to pull out nits one at a time. The “gross” factor disappears quickly, replaced by a strange, primal contentment. Nit-picking is a very soothing activity. The little eggs crunched between fingernails give a most satisfying pop. I’m almost sad they’re all gone.

A cute, fuzzy bug

Seems so innocent, right? Well, this bug is responsible for the 1980s look of all my softest sweaters. It has an innate sense for which wools cost the most and will snack on those, leaving all the best sweaters, suits, scarves and rugs riddled with unfashionable holes. This bug is also responsible for my recent silence. I have been too busy (and angry) waging a war against them to do much of anything else. This is the carpet beetle.

What to do when you are under attack? Clean!

It took me three weeks to wash every single item of clothing and piece of fabric in the house. Sweaters are difficult, because to get rid of eggs clothes must go into the dryer on high heat. So after washing them and drying them in the sun and vacuuming them I wrapped them in freezer bags and cooked them in the microwave. I collect fabric and I have a whole lot of yarn, so that all got zapped too. To my dog’s dismay I vacuumed the whole place over and over, moving every single piece of furniture and even turning everything upside down to vacuum underneath. Every single closet, every drawer was emptied, cleaned, then dusted with boric acid and diatomaceous earth. I also blew that powder under furniture, into all the cracks I could find (under moulding, between floorboards) and into electrical boxes.

So now my apartment is cleaner than it has EVER been, and I have isolated, under seal, a whole bunch of holy sweaters, which I couldn’t bring myself to throw out. My plan is to learn to felt and turn them into hats, pillows, and blankets. If you have any other ideas for reusing ruined sweaters, let me know!

Note: I take 99% of the photos in this blog — but the featured image on this post comes from Susannah Anderson, who takes some very nice bug pictures.

Edible Pesticide

I do all my gardening on my dining room table so I need my bug poison to be edible. I have read about (and tried) complicated brews of garlic, onions, peppers, etc which then need to be stored in the refrigerator, but I can no longer be bothered with such complicated DIY recipes. Now I use 2 teaspoons of liquid soap, 1/2 teaspoon of neem oil, and 1/4 teaspoon of sesame oil, then fill the 32oz spray bottle with water. That’s it! It doesn’t need to be refrigerated either. It works well against all the leaf-sucking pests and doesn’t hurt other good insects like ladybugs or bees (I don’t get many of those in my apartment, but it may be of interest for others who do have access to outdoor space). Babies or some succulent plants don’t like this mix, mild as it is. Those you can just dunk into a bowl of soapy water to drown the sap suckers…

Neem oil is quite interesting: it smells like a combination of peanuts and garlic, which insects (and some people) find repellent. Locusts, in fact, would rather starve than eat a plant which has been sprayed with it. In addition to ruining their appetites, neem messes with bugs’ hormones and limits their pupation — their ability to change from larva to a full grown fertile adult. So if the bug survives being sprayed with the stuff, it won’t have any viable descendants. Sound good, right? But in practice, I still need to keep a sharp eye out, especially for those minuscule spider mites which won’t leave my eggplant alone. I can keep them under control but I’ve never been able to wipe them out completely.