Keeping Bugs at Bay

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It may be a cuddly bug's life in the movies, but in the real world humans are more than happy to annihilate their insect enemies. This piece of gospel becomes more apparent when the dog days of July lure recreation-minded folks onto a collision course with the bloodsucking beasts. Thankfully for the delectable bipeds, however, there's all manner of sprays, lotions, and bath oils to keep the bugs out of arm's way.

Market research shows that 52 percent of all Americans use insect repellents, spending an estimated $200 million annually on anti-bug concoctions, a ccording to SC Johnson, the maker of OFF! products. What's unusual about the top repellent markets is that they're correlated less with the distribution of local insects than with the lifestyle of their human residents. The map to the right reflects the concentration of insecticide users in the rural heartland, particularly upper Midwest markets like Glendive, Montana; Wausau-Rhinelander, Wisconsin; and Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

But entomologists report that most bugs thrive near standing water, which would suggest marshy coastal areas of the United States as the prime homeland for repellent fans.

In fact, the map shows just the opposite: The coasts have relatively low insecticide use, especially in the relatively swampy regions of New Jersey, Louisiana, and Florida. Part of the explanation is that the coasts are also home to many big cities whose residents tend to work and play in air-conditioned comfort, away from chomping mosquitoes. The nation's largest cities have among the lowest rates of repellent purchasing.

Demographic data also show that older people in the Sunbelt retirement states are less likely to use insect repellents because they spend less time outdoors than younger folks. "Bugs respond to heat and carbon dioxide," says Cliff Sadof, entomology professor at Purdue University. "So the more you sweat, the more CO2 you give off and the easier it is for mosquitoes to find you. In Florida, the old people live indoors." That logic helps explain why Miami ranks dead last among Nielsen's 215 media markets for repellent use.

A different weather pattern explains the relative lack of interest in insect repellents in the Southwest: bugs hate an arid climate, so desert residents can open windows without the need for screens. In addition, mosquito abatement officials deserve some credit for keeping repellent use low in California and Florida. "The bug abatement in those states is so good that it's become a selling point for the real estate agents," notes Robert Novak, a scientist and professor at the University of Illinois. "People who live there are getting a little spoiled and forgetting how many bugs there could be."

By contrast, geography and tradition are both behind the popularity of insect repellent in agricultural areas throughout the Midwest and South. There, farmers have been using pesticides for generations in order to protect their crops, and today's residents are more relaxed about using chemicals like DEET to ward off insects. Even before the invention of OFF! bug spray 45 years ago, Americans used citronella oil-a plant-based product still popular in candles and lotions-to ward off bugs. "In the South, women used to carry vials of citronella oil that they'd dab with a handkerchief on their neck or face," recounts Novak.

Lately, natural products made from citronella and cedar have become more popular as consumers express concerns about the toxicity of insect repellents. Avon's Skin-So-Soft is a bath oil that doubles as a mosquito repellent for several hours. Other companies have formulated lotions like Skintastic and Blocker for Kids, which provide both a sunscreen and repellent to keep bathers from becoming an insect all-you-can-eat buffet.

To hear the industry experts, more such products are going to be needed in the future, as developers pave over exurban areas where insects previously thrived. Runoff from roads and roofs are creating more pools that serve as bug breeding grounds-"three-star hotels for mosquitoes," in Novak's words. And recent outbreaks of Lyme disease and equine encephalitis are also encouraging Americans to protect themselves from insect-borne illnesses. "The industry keeps growing because people's concerns keep growing over insects," says Cynthia Georgeson, director of public affairs for SC Johnson. "Everyone wants their kids to have the best protection possible against bites by bugs."

With the recreation industry booming, repellent researchers are working feverishly to create ever more powerfulsolutions to keep you from becoming blood sport. The remedies are varied-from stuffing yourself with garlic to rubbing your body with orange peels. But some entomologists say the most promising idea may be in finding good insects that will eat bad ones to keep down their numbers. For the real-life fans of bugs, however, that's gotta hurt.

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