Got Skeeters Bad? Call in the DragonFlies!
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Q. I'm a 13-year-old boy and live with my grandparents on seven acres of land. We have a pond, but absolutely no dragonflies. We're way out in the country, and you'd think we'd have plenty, but we have not seen any. It's like they vanished. Is there any kind of smell or food we could use to attract them? We need them badly; I just counted thirty bites on my legs! Bug spray has been no help, so our only hope is dragonflies…
---Ethan in Brokaw Wisconsin
A. Let's stop here (with the second part of Ethan's email to come) and offer some instant help, although Ethan probably isn't going to like it. Because he should be wearing long pants. Specifically white ones. Yes, I realize that long white pants are the totally incorrect uniform for a thirteen-year-old country boy in the summer, but it would prevent those leg bites while we ramp up with other measures.
I further suggest that Ethan's grandfolks treat a couple pair of long white pants with a spray-on tick repellant (available at stores that sell hunting and camping supplies). The spray will contain one-tenth of one percent permethrin—a synthetic version of a natural insecticide obtained from the flowers of a specific type of chrysanthemum.
Ah—but that's a TICK repellant; isn't DEET the main chemical repellant for mosquitoes?
Yes—but while DEET does not work against ticks, Permethrin-treated clothing does repel mosquitoes—and chiggers, which might actually be the major itch-inducer at play here, because Ethan only says that it's his legs that are getting bitten up.
Chiggers and fleas are the classic low-level biters, working from the ankles up to around the knees for fleas and all the way up to the (gulp!) waist for chiggers. Permethrin-treated clothing (which is also available professionally pre-treated from a company called Insect Shield) would keep both of those biters—and ticks—off of this poor kid's bit-up legs.
But what if it works for his legs and then his arms start getting bit up?
Permethrin treated white long sleeve shirts. And let's add one of the EPA-approved mosquito repellants that don't contain DEET to protect his face and neck. Lemon Eucalyptus and Picardan are two active ingredients that have been shown to be as effective as DEET, which is toxic, a solvent, and doesn't seem to be working for him anyway. Now let's finish up his email.
Q. Ethan continues: My grandparents say that the dragonflies don't come around anymore because of all the chemicals farmers spray on their crops, which we're surrounded by. And our pond is small—the size of a queen-sized bed. But my little baby snapping turtle loves it, and we hope that our little pond is big enough to get the dragonflies back.
A. Hey, I want a little baby snapping turtle!
Anyway—the pesticide spraying is a good theory. Dragonflies are voracious predators of mosquitoes, eating twice their weight in the nasty blood-suckers every day; and those mosquitoes are probably loaded with pesticides that are going to build up to high levels in the dragonflies' bodies. The perils of the food chain.
Luckily, new dragonflies can be attracted—even to a pond that small.
And I have to apologize here, as our Gardens Alive archives contain a previous Question of the Week that discusses exactly how to attract dragonflies. But it didn't have the word 'dragonfly' in the title; just their common name of 'mosquito hawk'. So if you searched 'dragonfly' at the Gardens Alive archives….
Maybe you'd get a link to the Chinese Lantern Festival. My bad. That's been fixed; and here's the short scoop on that answer from one of our favorite entomologists, Dr. Linda Gilkeson: "Entice them with perches—narrow upright stakes that extend well above any plants in the area." Dr Gilkeson has found that bamboo poles placed in a kind of zig-zag pattern about three to four feet high are the best attractors.
She continues: "Position your perches where they'll be in full sun at the middle of the day, when dragonflies are most active." And the more stakes the merrier. Dr. Gilkeson says that there's a dragonfly at the top of every one of her perches on most summer days, each one "looking like a bright jewel on the head of a pin." Neat.
And, as always when you're attracting any kinds of beneficials—whether they be toads, insects, birds or Bats—it is vitally important to avoid pesticides, which kill the good guys faster than they can harm the bad guys.
Ethan should also treat that pond with BTI to make sure that it isn't the source of his mosquito miseries. Specifically, he should shake some BTI granules into the water to make a quick knockdown of any developing larvae and then toss one of those doughnut-shaped dunks into the water for long-term control.
And of course, all-natural BTI only prevents mosquito breeding, BTI does not harm birds, butterflies, dragonflies, people, pets, etc.