With spring just around the corner we’re about to be treated to an annual transition. Winter grudgingly gives way to new life as trees begin to bud, plants start to emerge, and lawns turn from drab yellow to bright green. Waterfowl migrate back north, bears crawl out of their dens, and songbirds begin building their nests. And then come the bugs — all kinds of bugs, some good, some bad. The kind of bug varies with the region you live in, but some are universally present such as the mosquito that we all love to hate.
For me, the critters I dislike most are chiggers and black flies. Both have caused me temporary insanity.
I’ve never seen a chigger, and I don’t think it’s possible unless you have a magnifying glass. They’d probably look like a tiny dot. If you’ve never had an encounter with a chigger, you won’t understand my utter dislike for them. Most of my chigger events occurred in the south. I was attacked by chiggers once in South Dakota, but it was in southern South Dakota. I’ve never heard of chiggers in the north. They’re actually a mite, and the good news is that they have never caused any debilitating illnesses other than painful, maddening itching. So far.
A chigger bite is a force to be reckoned with. It will drive you crazy with the itching, and the more you scratch, the worse it gets.
At some point the sore will develop into a small boil that will eventually burst and drain down your body. Very disgusting. The sores will be red, easy to see, and will make you hesitate to be seen on a beach in a swimsuit or to simply wear shorts.
One of my worst encounters was picking raspberries in Maryland. I don’t like to think about it. Another was on a hog hunt in Texas where we spent some time in tall grass fishing for bass. Again, that was an unpleasant memory.
There are many suggestions for preventing chiggers from enjoying your flesh. Once, in Texas, I was advised to stuff several clothes dryer sheets into my socks. I did, and I was never chigger-bit, though I can’t say the dryer sheets are one hundred percent effective. Maybe there were just no chiggers around. Of course, there are many repellants on the market that you spray on your clothing. Some of this stuff is so lethal that you don’t dare get any on your skin. Before applying a chemical, do your research and follow directions carefully.
Then there are remedies for the bite itself. A popular one, which I understand has been disproven many times, is to paint the bite with fingernail polish. Doesn’t work, say the experts. Rather, there are several medications that are recommended, which allegedly work.
And then we have black flies. Luckily, they’re not present in northern Wyoming where I live. My experience with the little monsters was in the northeast and in Canada, but they’re found in other northerly regions. They’re cowards in that they don’t attack solo as mosquitos do, but in large groups. They especially love biting you behind the ears, your neck and most anything that’s exposed. My family had a cottage on a lake in New York’s Adirondack Mountains and I vividly remember the hordes of black flies that swarmed around us. They typically showed up in May and were gone by late June. Thank goodness.
The very first repellent I’d heard of was called “Save The Baby.” It was some sort of lotion for diaper rash and supposedly worked. Then another product, “Skin So Soft” appeared on the scene and was quickly accepted by folks who lived in black fly country. Sometimes these varmints are so thick that you’ll be nailed by a horde and become peppered with painful bites. The worst experience I ever had was during a fishing trip in northern New York State. I was enjoying a fine day on the river, slowly wading upstream and catching a few pretty trout. As I rounded a bend I was suddenly attacked by a huge swarm of black flies. They bit me so intensely that I literally tossed my fly rod on shore and ran as fast as I could to my vehicle. The flies followed. I opened the door, jumped in and slammed the door as quickly as I could. I’d been wearing a short-sleeved shirt and had hundreds of bites on my arms. One of my buddies lathered himself up with repellent and retrieved my fly rod.
When my wife and I hunted caribou in Quebec we had to deal with black flies though we found that when the wind picked up we’d have some relief. The critters would temporarily leave us alone but as soon as the wind quit the flies would be back.
There’s a tiny insect that’s often associated with black flies. Called a “noseeum” because of their size they’ll make you believe you were pricked by a sharp needle when they bite you. These little guys are so tiny they’ll fit through a window screen. That’s why they’re call no-see-ums.
Ticks are a huge problem everywhere - another menace that I intensely dislike. Just the sight of a tick is unnerving. Seeing a tick crawling on my body, especially if it’s dug in and chomping away may cause instant panic and hysteria. Unlike chiggers, ticks will cause all sorts of medical problems, including death.
Our Rocky Mountain ticks are usually easily seen. They’re sort of a burgundy color and large. You can readily spot them whether they’re crawling on you or are dug in. These are bad boys and can cause Colorado Tick Fever and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. My most serious encounters occurred while spring turkey hunting in the Black Hills. Once, I picked 40 or 50 off me. I obviously sat in some pine needles loaded with the nasty critters.
My first experience with ticks was when I moved west to work as a wildlife biologist with the BLM. The federal government required us to get tick shots from the local doc. I never liked it, and I don’t know if it worked or not. I haven’t heard of anyone getting tick shots in a long time.
Ticks outside the west can be tiny, often called “seed” ticks. My earliest memory of them was back 40 years ago when I climbed into a pile of logs in Texas from which to ambush a turkey. I emerged from there in a large hurry when I discovered I was quickly becoming a buffet for lots of the little devils.
A big mystery is the appearance of ticks in the east. For 8 years I worked for the US Military Academy at West Point as post forester and game warden (in southern New York State.) That was back in the late 60’s and early 70’s. I spent most of my time in the woods, often taking lunch breaks lying in the leaves on the forest floor. I never once saw a tick, nor did I hear of one. Then, some years later, ticks began showing up. And, as many of us are aware, so did Lyme disease, which was discovered in Lyme, Connecticut in 1975. This is now a common disease, especially in New England, and is now found around much of the country. I know dozens of people who have it.
Once, I was hunting deer in Rhode Island. I was standing on the ground and was aghast to see dozens of ticks crawling up my trousers. I got out of there in a hurry after brushing them off, with and without my pants on.
There are other ticks that cause serious issues and illnesses. One, the Lone Star tick, can cause severe problems with serious consequences, including an allergy to red meat with nasty symptoms. And now comes word of yet the discovery of another tick that can cause immediate illness, including death. It seems like every year we learn of a new tick, some of which should be avoided at all costs.
Of course there are many other critters that can cause pain.
Bees, hornets and wasps are capable of causing serious illnesses if not just intense pain. Ever stumble into a nest of yellowjackets or hornets? Not good. Neither are fire ants in the south and all sorts of spiders.
Mosquitoes are so bad they can make your life miserable, especially if you’re camped or simply sitting on your porch trying to enjoy the evening. My worst experience with mosquitoes was in the tundra of northern Canada. The nasty things were everywhere - thousands of them. You’d think the intense cold would kill them off but that’s not the case. I’ve heard from credible sources that hordes of mosquitoes could literally drive caribou crazy, causing them to run aimlessly for days without food and water and literally sucking so much blood that the caribou dies.
So, is this blog an attempt to keep you out of the woods, fields and even your back lawn? Not at all. Fact is, the odds of contracting one of these diseases (other than Lyme) is extremely low. It’s a good idea to do a thorough tick check every time you come in from the woods, and a better idea to prevent them from making contact with you by using recommended repellents. There are many more bugs around besides those I mentioned. To enjoy the outdoors without suffering from these annoying pests, read up on the repellents that work best and be sure to follow directions. For example, DEET, a popular repellent works well for some bugs but not for others.
Many years ago when I was in forestry college, and before most of the repellents were invented, we made our own out of bear grease, oil of citronella and other pungent ingredients, and smeared the stuff all over whatever parts of our body were exposed. It took days to get the smell off, and we were given a wide berth by anyone who was downwind. Our social life was zilch and was restored only when bug season ended.
Enjoy the outdoors and always remember you’ll likely need to deal with some sort of flying or crawling critters that can turn a happy memory into one that you’d like to forget. Being prepared and informed is the key.