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Outdoor Living: Buzz Off

Citronella candles, Japanese coils, pyrethrum sprays—what really protects you from mosquitoes?

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One of the things that sold my husband and me on our Dutch Colonial ten years ago was the garden. Edged by a picket fence and hedges, it was everything a couple with a not-quite-one-year-old might wish for. Safe, private, and big enough for a game of croquet.

Though it was winter, we had visions of parties beneath lantern-strung trees and lazy brunches on the verandah.

Having previously owned a Georgetown rowhouse with a small brick patio, we didn’t think for a minute about mosquitoes. But as I counted the itchy red welts on my legs after pulling weeds in my new garden one July afternoon, mosquitoes were very much on my mind.

April showers might mean May flowers to some. In our house they’re a call to arms, time to take stock of what’s new in the world of mosquito vanquishing.

That first summer, aiming to keep things as chemical-free as possible, we loaded up on citronella torches and sprays.

Citronella, the best-known of the organic products, is a mild salvo in the pantheon of repellents—effective for about 30 minutes as opposed to deet-based products, which even at low percentages (25 to 35 percent) protect for three to four hours, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. Another downside: citronella’s overpowering scent. Less is more when it comes to citronella, I discovered one evening after overzealously ringing my chair with the candles. I was blissfully bite-free for a few hours but had to decamp after developing flu-like symptoms from my overdose.

The next year, we invested in a Mosquito Magnet, a four-foot-high gizmo that costs $300 to $800, depending on acreage covered, features, and whether it’s electric or propane-powered. The Magnet and machines like it release carbon dioxide, the substance that attracts mosquitoes to humans. When mosquitoes hover too close, the Magnet vacuums them into a pouch where they die and dry up.

I’m usually a capture-and-release sort when it comes to bugs, but I have to admit that seeing all those dead mosquitoes in the Magnet’s mesh pouch was gratifying. Clearly the mosquito population was being diminished. Sadly, the Magnet wasn’t able to get them all.

Machines such as the Magnet work better if others in the neighborhood have them, says Joe Conlon of the American Mosquito Control Association, a nonprofit that offers educational and technical assistance to mosquito-control agencies worldwide: “If you’re the only person with one, it’s not going to capture enough.” These machines are also better at catching some types of mosquitoes than others, Conlon says.

Because we’re the only ones on our block with a Magnet, we’ve given it some backup by stationing box fans on the porch when we’re having one of those lazy brunches. Mosquitoes are poor flyers and have trouble reaching targets if there’s a breeze. A ceiling fan would be better but would mean retooling our double-decker porch. Likewise, though we’ve toyed with the idea of screening in the porch—new gossamer-thin screens make the notion more aesthetically appealing than in the past—we’re hoping for a simpler solution.

As much as I’m bothered by mosquitoes, I’m not willing to try some things. The idea of bat houses in my Japanese cherry tree or thousands of dragonflies in the yard strikes me as creepy. Bats and dragonflies are known mosquito predators but, says Conlon, wouldn’t get them all, either.

Mosquito fish, voracious eaters of mosquito larvae—and anything else that crosses their path, including their own young—sound interesting, but because we don’t have a pond they don’t apply.

I’m still on the fence about pyrethrum-based sprays—made from chrysanthemum leaves and synthetic chemicals—which paralyze and kill mosquitoes. Services that spray your property every three or four weeks, for $500 and up depending on yard size, have come into vogue. Having been to quite a few poolside parties at homes that have gone the spray route, I can say the results are amazing. Even at dusk, gardens and pool decks have been mosquito-free.

EPA literature suggests that pyrethrums are safer and less toxic than the previous generation of pesticides when applied properly—“properly” being the operative word. Consumers can protect themselves by asking spraying firms for documentation about the chemicals used and checking them out at Technicians should know what kinds of mosquitoes they’re targeting and what the spraying plan is. Usually it’s best to keep pets and children out of the yard for several hours or until the next day, so ask about post-spray instructions.

I’ll admit the spray route is tempting. But for now it’s the Magnet and box fans for us. A friend told me about cedar coils that are used against mosquitoes in Japan. I haven’t been able to find them stateside, but I did locate footlong cedar incense sticks at my hardware store. They smell better than citronella, and you can just push them into the ground or a flowerpot.

I have visions of lighting dozens around the garden. And then maybe we’ll be able to play that game of croquet.

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