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Coping With Spiders, Biters and Stinging Swarms
written by Keith Sutton

Outdoor pests make us swat, squat, dodge, wave, stumble, mumble and curse. But mostly they make us itch.
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The brown recluse, or "fiddleback," has a dark, violin-shaped mark just behind the head. 

It's a love/hate relationship.  Bugs love me.  I hate them.  Simple as that.

Nothing annoys me like a zillion droning mosquitoes squabbling over the tender cuts of my neck.  Nothing appalls me like seeing a leg -- my leg -- covered with blood-swollen "seed" ticks.  Nothing electrifies me like finding a black widow spider under the seat of the camp latrine I'm sitting on.  And nothing -- not even poison ivy between my toes -- makes me itch as bad as chiggers in my skivvies.

I read once that at any given moment, there are a billion, billion bugs besieging the earth.  I dare say most of them are intimately acquainted with my anatomy.  Bugs bite, sting, burrow and otherwise tap into my vintage epidermis.  I swat, dodge, scream and scratch.

Outdoorsmen have been bugged by bugs since the first caveman swatted a mosquito on his neck, exclaiming "oooga-booga!" -- which, roughly translated means, "damn skeeter."  Not long ago, folks smeared on bear grease or doused their clothes with kerosene or just didn't bathe for weeks, all to elude outdoor pests.

Today, we can use more pleasant ways to avoid the misery spread by outdoor pestdom.  Yet, each year, many people still suffer needlessly from bites and stings.

Knowing how to protect yourself from outdoor pests is important for comfort and safety.  Most bugs only annoy with their biting and buzzing, but others can kill.  Sharing the world with them and enjoying it means certain rules must be followed.  The first is to know the enemy.

Skeeters and Other Biters

Most people call them mosquitoes (usually preceded by some word unbefitting this website).  Some Southerners call them the state bird and tell horror stories about them, like the guy attacked by a swarm so huge, they lifted him clear off the road.  (They would have gotten away with him if he hadn't been in his car.)  Where I grew up, we just called them skeeters.

There are 130 kinds of North American skeeters, and I pity the person who counted.  Skeeters are real bad in some parts.  In other areas, you hardly notice them.  You grade the skeeter crop's severity by clapping your hands.  If, on opening your hands, you find more than 20 skeeters, you're in a truly bad skeeter area.  If, on the other hand, you find only two or three skeeters, you needn't worry about skeeter anemia.  (When I moved to the city from a rice-country home, I was shocked to hear a woman complain about her mosquito bite.  That was because I'd never heard the term used in the singular form before.)

Female skeeters, the kind that bite, need a blood meal -- your blood -- before laying their eggs.  To find you, they follow your body's chemical trails.  The carbon dioxide you exhale is like the aroma of bacon frying over a campfire to hungry skeeters.  Since one person's chemical trail may differ markedly from another's, skeeters swarm all over some folks and hardly bother others.  (Oooga-booga!)

Other bugs out for blood include horseflies, gnats and chiggers.  Horseflies were named by someone who thought bestowing this title on them would convince the vampirish beasts that horse blood is inherently tastier than human blood.  It didn't work.  Horseflies aren't smart enough to be confused.  They have a steadfast mindset: find a human and bite its exposed flesh.

Gnats are worse, 'cause they're smaller and travel in herds.  Gnats aren't much bigger than the period ending this sentence, but when one bites you, you'll swear it sliced off a steak.

DEET is the most effective ingredient for repelling biting bugs.  

Chiggers are even more dramatic proof that size isn't always the most important factor to consider when gauging significance.  At 1/150th of an inch in diameter, they're virtually invisible.  You can't holler, "Watch out for those chiggers!" 'cause you can't see them.  But if these baby mites drill into your hide (they love skin under elastic), the itchy welts thus raised will remind you for days that the grass is not always greener on the other side.

To keep biting bugs at a distance, just remember this word:  N-diethyl-meta-toluamide.  OK, then, try to remember the nickname, DEET.

DEET is the most effective ingredient for repelling biting bugs.  The more DEET an insect repellent contains, the less bugs like it and the longer it protects.

Repellents may contain up to 100 percent DEET.  Use a repellent with a lower percentage of DEET in areas with limited bug populations.  If bugs are thick, use a higher-percentage repellent.  Always follow label directions.  And be aware that DEET dissolves rayon, fishing line and the finish on rods and guns.

For added protection, wear long sleeves and pants in bug country and camp in open wind-swept areas if possible.  And use insect-proof tents with fine-mesh screens.

If biting kamikazes still get through -- and a few usually do -- try applying a bite- and sting-relief medication to the irritated area.  Alcohol helps, too -- the rubbing kind, of course.

Ticks aren't usually too annoying; they don't hurt. And except when they're pinhead-sized babies (seed ticks), they don't roam in swarms like some mean-and-nasties.  The only other good thing about ticks is they are a lot smaller than grizzly bears.

People are a tick's idea of an enormous strawberry soda.  If they keep their straws in you long enough, you could contract Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia or one of the other dangerous illnesses they may carry.  Fortunately, repellents containing DEET or Permanone repel most ticks.  And since ticks usually require a day or two to transmit disease, a careful body inspection after trips afield -- being especially attentive to scalp, armpits, groin and buttocks -- prevents most problems.

Remove embedded ticks with tweezers, being careful not to squeeze the bug.  Clean the bite with antiseptic.  To be safe, any rash, fever, chills, or generalized illness following a tick-bite should be checked by a doctor.

Stinging Insects

Stings of wasps, bees, hornets, velvet ants and fire ants can be very unpleasant.  People vary in their reactions to stings.  Most have only temporary discomfort.  But some go into severe, sometimes fatal, shock.  A doctor-prescribed medication should always be carried with people allergic to stings.

Stings happen when you least expect them.  You drink a bee with your soda.  You sit on a soft dirt mound of FIRE ANTS!  You snag your fishing line on a limb attached to a hornet nest.  You drive your tent stake through a nest of ground yellow jackets.

To prevent stings, wear shoes outdoors.  Don't wear perfume and bright-colored clothing as these attract stinging insects.  Don't leave food exposed outside.  Don't swat.

Most stings can be treated with a cold compress or sting-kill medication.  But if a sting victim has swallowing difficulties, shortness of breath, weakness or unconsciousness, get them medical attention immediately.  Every minute counts.


Spiders are also known as "crawly things."  If a spider gets on someone, you'll usually hear, "Aaaaiii!  I just felt a crawly thing on me!"  Fortunately, almost all spiders are harmless and beneficial.

The two most seriously poisonous spiders are the black widow and brown recluse.  Tarantulas have a painful but innocuous bite.  

The glossy-black, pea-sized female black widow usually has an hourglass-shaped marking on her belly.

The brown recluse, or "fiddleback," has a dark, violin-shaped mark just behind the head.  Most are quarter-sized, including the long legs.  They live in log piles, closets, outdoor sheds, clothing, boxes, old newspapers, empty jars and other seldom-disturbed areas.

Most people are bitten when a recluse is trapped in clothing, shoes, gloves or bedding.  The bite isn't painful, and symptoms such as pain, swelling and nausea may not appear for hours.  Within days, though, the venom destroys the flesh, leaving a gaping wound that may not heal for months.  Death or limb loss is rare, but the bite is serious and requires prompt medical attention.

The glossy-black, pea-sized female black widow usually has an hourglass-shaped marking on her belly.  She may be found in rocks, log piles, water meter boxes and dark corners in quiet buildings.  She is especially fond of the underside of pit toilets where flies, her filet mignon, are abundant.  Humans using the privy offer especially tender and susceptible portions of their anatomies for her bite (yeeeoooww!).  Her venom is more potent than cobra venom.

The widow's bite feels like a pinprick, but within minutes, cramping pain shoots through the body.  The abdomen becomes stiff as a board from muscle cramps.  Other symptoms include dizziness, droopy eyelids, vomiting and difficulty breathing.  A healthy adult usually survives the bite without complications, but in others, the bite is more serious.  Black widows cause several deaths annually.

To prevent nasty encounters, be careful around spider habitat, like woodpiles and rocks.  Shake out clothing and bedding (including sleeping bags) before use, especially items just out of storage.  Frequently clean closets, cellars, attics and storage buildings.  

Other Crawly Things

There are many other creepy-crawlies you should also sidestep.  Caterpillars of the io moth and saddleback moth have stiff, sharp-pointed spines that cause pain and swelling if touched.  Scorpions can, in colloquial terms, "sting the fire out of you."  You can get bitten by kissing bugs (don't let the name fool you) and blistered by blister beetles.  There are also huge, dangerous-looking centipedes whose bite will make your hair stand if you let one get to close.

Luckily, trauma from these creatures is usually more painful than serious.  Put antiseptic on the wound, use cold compresses or pain relievers for the hurt, and see a doctor immediately if there are symptoms of serious shock or illness.

No matter how you look at them, or swat at them, or try to steer clear of them, outdoor pests are here to stay.  Because of them, infants will wail, women will weep and strong men will teeter on the brink of madness.  It is indelibly written and underscored in Mother Nature's "The Natural Order of Things."

Fortunately for you, my body parts are preferred by nine out of 10 biting bugs in North America.  Could you scratch my back, please?  A little lower.  Yeah, right there.

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