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Gardening Articles: Care :: Pests & Problems

Protect Yourself from Summer's Insect Pests

by Suzanne DeJohn

Mosquitoes are not only nuisances, they also can transmit various diseases. (Photo courtesy the Center for Disease Control,

The list of illnesses carried by summer's insect pests is daunting: encephalitis, West Nile virus, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, malaria, dengue fever, Lyme disease, and even plague! According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Web site, "human plague in the United States has occurred as mostly scattered cases in rural areas (an average of 10 to 15 persons each year)." Plague is an infectious bacterial disease usually transmitted by a flea. Yes, this is the same disease that killed millions of people in the Middle Ages. Who knew it was still a threat?

Scientists have even coined the taxonomically meaningless but handy term "arbovirus" to describe viruses transmitted to vertebrates (like us) via blood-feeding arthropods, such as mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas (ARthropod-BOrne VIRUS). Visiting the CDC Web site is enough to make a person shun the outdoors and slather oneself with DEET before venturing to carry out the trash.

So what's a gardener to do?

Making Sense of It All

The first thing to do is look at the statistics. Take West Nile virus, currently in the news as the latest insect-borne scourge. As of mid July 2005, 61 cases of West Nile virus have been reported in the United States so far this year. In 2004 there were a total of 2539 cases reported nationwide, and 100 deaths were attributed to the virus. (It appears that many cases are reported long after the fact, so the 61 so far this year may or may not turn out to be a downturn in the incidence of the disease.) In comparison, according to the CDC almost 700,000 annual deaths can be attributed to heart disease, 40,000 to car accidents, and 20,000 to the flu. So although it makes sense to be aware of the dangers posed by West Nile virus, it's important to put it in perspective. Eat right, exercise, don't smoke, and wear your seat belt -- these are all far more important than worrying about getting bitten by a mosquito. Or, to put it another way, the chances of dying from West Nile appear to be about the same as dying by lightning strike.

That said, it still makes sense to be aware of the dangers. And, frankly, the nuisance factor of ticks, mosquitoes, and fleas warrants finding ways to repel them, even if their potential as disease carriers is relatively remote.


When possible, wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and socks outdoors. Use a repellent on exposed skin and on thin clothing, since mosquitoes can bite through it. Follow the insect repellent's label instructions carefully. For example, do not spray repellent containing DEET on the skin under your clothing; rather, spray it onto your clothing.

Exclude mosquitoes from your home by installing tight-fitting screens on windows and doors. Minimize mosquito-breeding areas by removing all sources of standing water, including small ones, such as plant saucers, and old tires. Dump birdbaths and pet water dishes and replace with fresh water at least twice weekly.There are several commercial products available to kill mosquito larvae in ponds; follow the label directions carefully to maximize their effectiveness.

Report sightings of dead birds to local authorities; don't handle them. Dead birds can indicate the presence of West Nile virus in a region. Remember, however, that birds die from many other causes besides the virus, so there's no need to panic.

Taking these precautions will go a long way toward preventing your exposure to mosquito-borne diseases, such as West Nile virus and La Crosse encephalitis, and, perhaps more importantly, will minimize the aggravation mosquitoes can cause.

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