You don’t need to poison your kids, pets, pollinators, and the rest of nature just to avoid mosquito bites. I use several methods to keep them in check while protecting biodiversity and my neighbors.
Invite birds to eat your insects. Even birds who eat seed feed insects to their babies.
Remove the standing water that mosquitos need to breed. Check your gutters and remove any water traps like old tires or saucers under potted plants. I change the water in the birdbath every morning, but once a week is enough to keep mosquitos from hatching.
On the other hand, adding moving water can reduce the mosquitoes in your yard. My water feature attracts dragonflies, who can eat a hundred of the pests a day. The resident frogs and lizards also eat mosquitoes. A pump keeps the water moving. In case there are any still spots, I put mosquito dunks into the pond once a month. The dunks contain BTI (Bacillus thuringiensis israelenisan), an EPA-approved, very specific bacteria that kills young mosquito larvae.
The carnivorous plants in the bog garden, shown above, eat mosquitoes and other insects.
For the long game, I work to slow global warming, which improves conditions for mosquitoes and the diseases they spread.
Repelling the Remaining Mosquitoes
All these steps reduce but don’t eliminate mosquitoes. So I wear cool, long-sleeve shirts to garden in the lower, damper part of the garden. I also
wear wrist and ankle bands made with lemon eucalyptus and citronella [update: use coconut body products] to smell less like a tasty mammal. The Environmental Working Group has a guide to effective, relatively safe bug repellants.
“Where would I find enough pleatherparaphrasing Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva
To cover the entire surface of the earth?
But with pleather soles beneath my feet,
It’s as if the whole world has been covered.”
If your neighbors must spray their yards, suggest that they use an organic garlic spray that kills mosquitoes on contact but then just repels them for several weeks. The bugs evidently have a keen sense of smell. My neighbors say their yards smell a little like pizza for an hour, then they don’t notice it. The garlic spray likely kills pollinators and other wildlife on contact, but it does less damage than standard toxins such as bifenthrin.
Why is Spraying for Mosquitoes a Big Deal?
Science Magazine asked Where Have All the Insects Gone? Scientists don’t have all the answers yet, but suspect neonicotinoid pesticides used on non-organic crops and loss of habitat. A yard sprayed with mosquito spray is a lost habitat for mosquitoes, butterflies, bees, and more. A friend in Virginia told me she had noticed that there were no insects in her community vegetable garden this year, a big change. She said that a man who runs a local birdhouse project reported finding birdhouses full of birds who had starved to death. No insects, no insectivores.
Common Ingredients Toxic to Fish and Bees, May Cause Cancer in Humans
Bifenthrin, a synthetic pyrethroid designed to mimic insect-killing chemicals from the chrysanthemum flower, is commonly used by mosquito spraying services. The National Pesticide Information Center says we may be exposed to bifenthrin if we “touch it, eat it, or breathe it in” and that the U.S. EPA classifies bifenthrin as a possible human carcinogen. Exposed pets may experience vomiting, diarrhea, partial paralysis, and depression. Bifenthrin is highly toxic to bees, fish, and small aquatic organisms.
Bifenthrin is Highly Toxic to Bees, But “Sublethal” Doses Bad Too
The Purdue Extension Service lists bifenthrin as highly toxic to bees and says beekeepers within 2 to 3 miles should be notified the night before spraying. (Two or three miles!) This beekeeper’s website has a good post about a study on the sublethal effects of bifenthrin on bees, which says:
Lately more attention has been given to sublethal doses because, although they might not kill an adult bee outright, they can have serious consequences to the survival of young bees and to the future of the whole colony. Imagine a human who is poisoned enough to have brain damage but not enough to die. That would be a “sublethal” effect…. The researchers found that in honey bee colonies exposed to sublethal amounts of these pyrethroids, the queens didn’t lay as many eggs, the number of eggs that hatched was far fewer, and the number of hatchlings that made it to adulthood was even fewer. Since the honey bee life cycle—from egg to adult worker—is just 21 days, you could go from a very strong hive to a very weak one in less than a month.