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Mosquito, where is thy sting? Bug-repellent clothes bite back

Times Staff Writer

THE lake was glassy and dark, the sky black and filled with stars. I was perched on an Adirondack chair at the end of a dock and felt suspended in the universe. The only sound was the soft lapping of small waves against the shoreline; the only scent was a heady mixture of pine and cedar. I took a deep breath and exhaled, decompressing, relaxing, becoming one with nature.

That is, until the first dive-bombing mosquito hit. Followed by another and another. Biting my legs, my arms, my face — any place that was exposed. They even bit through the denim of my jeans. Enough, I thought, retreating. I wanted to become one with nature, not donate blood to the Mosquito Red Cross.

Each summer for the last dozen years or so, I’ve visited friends who have a cottage on a pretty lake in northern Michigan. It’s a wonderful place to escape the clamor of the city. Unfortunately, squadrons of stiletto-wielding mosquitoes summer here too. Each year, I’m carved up and return home with polka-dot skin, my legs and arms covered with dozens of large red welts.

This summer, I tried something new: killer threads — clothing that supposedly zaps bugs before they can zap you. It’s called Buzz Off Insect Repellent Apparel. You wear it instead of insecticide, although it may be more accurate to say you become a walking tower of insecticide.

The Buzz Off company, which is based in Greensboro, N.C., bonds the garments with the repellent permethrin, a man-made version of a natural insect repellent derived from chrysanthemums. It’s found in insect sprays, foggers, flea dips and mosquito abatement products.

Because friends refer to me as a mosquito magnet — in fact, I sometimes wonder if I’m invited places because of this Pied Piper quality — I thought I’d make a good test subject. But planning the experiment brought up the question: Why are some people the chosen ones? What is it that puts a bull’s-eye on certain folks?

“There are lots of theories,” said entomologist Joe Conlon, technical advisor to the American Mosquito Control Assn., a scientific and educational group. “Fair skin, blond hair, people who exude more lactic acid — in other words, sweat more. People who have smelly feet. Could that be you?” he asked, laughing.

“I hope not,” I answered.

“Mosquitoes like the smell of limburger cheese too,” Conlon said. More laughter.

“I hope that’s not me either.”

“There’s some slight evidence they seek females more frequently than males.”

“Maybe that’s it,” I said, relieved.

Conlon was a font of information: “Mosquitoes have been around for 170 million years, and it’s not because they’re stupid.”

Another tidbit: They aren’t looking for dinner when they tap into your bloodstream. They survive on nectar. The biters are females and require protein-rich blood to produce a batch of eggs. After sinking her hypodermic-like mouth into a human, the mother-to-be will suck two or three times her weight in blood. Just thinking about it made me feel faint.

An appealing pitch

I came across Buzz Off clothing in a mail-order catalog from Magellan’s (www.magellans.com). The Santa Barbara-based company, which specializes in travel supplies, displayed a page and a half of shirts, pants, vests and accessories. “Just tell those bugs to buzz off,” read the headline, followed by: “Buzz Off apparel repels mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, chiggers, ants, no-see-ums and other biting pests without lotion or spray.”

That line — “without lotion or spray” — appealed to me. Mosquitoes may not like insecticide, but neither do I. I hate slathering it on; I hate breathing the fumes. With my annual foray into the skeeter-filled North Woods looming, I thought Buzz Off was worth checking out. So, I called Magellan’s and ordered a long-sleeved shirt ($79), convertible pants with zip-off lower legs ($79) and a goofy-looking cap with flaps that cover the neck and ears ($28). I found other Buzz Off garments in an L.L. Bean catalog (www.llbean.com) and ordered a long-sleeve T-shirt ($25) and denim jeans ($39.50). Other Buzz Off clothing is available online and in stores such as REI and Adventure 16.

When my packages arrived, I had a pleasant surprise: None of the garments smelled like insecticide. The Magellan clothing, made by the Seattle-based company Ex Officio (www.exofficio.com), was a lightweight polyester and cotton blend. The pieces seemed pricey but had several pluses. Besides deterring insects, they had a sun protection factor of 30-plus. They also had practical features such as flap-covered pockets and mesh vents, and were designed to wick moisture away from the body.

My L.L. Bean clothing, which the Maine company designs and sends to Buzz Off to be bonded, had pluses and minuses. The jeans were heavy and stiff; I couldn’t imagine facing the Midwest’s summer heat and humidity in them. They didn’t even make it into my suitcase. But the yellow T-shirt I ordered was delightfully soft and comfortable. It was destined to become my favorite piece of anti-mosquito garb.

It’s too bad I didn’t try it out right away. The day before I left for Michigan in mid-July, I got into the car for my commute to work and emerged 45 minutes later with seven mosquito bites on my right leg, thanks to some uninvited hitchhikers. I apparently hadn’t lost my allure. That night, I drove home with my windows down and the moon roof wide open, wondering whether one of my riders carried West Nile virus.

Last year, 2,448 people in the U.S. were infected with West Nile, and 84 died, including 27 in California, according to health department reports. As of Aug. 5, 102 cases and two deaths had been reported in the state this year, although the peak transmission season is from late summer to early fall. “We’ve seen fewer cases so far,” said Aaron Brault, assistant professor with the UC Davis Center for Vectorborne Diseases. “But we’re just getting started. The cooler spring probably delayed things.” Indeed, the year’s total jumped 59% in the week prior to Aug. 5.

Laughing not allowed

EAGER to start the test, I put on my anti-mosquito garb as soon as I arrived in northern Michigan. My hostess burst out laughing.

“What’s the problem?” I asked.

“Let’s just say it’s not your finest hour. You look like a beekeeper in that hat.”

“It could be worse,” I replied. “I could have bought a veil made of mosquito netting to cover my face.”

It was nearly sunset — the mosquito world’s happy hour. We walked out on the dock to watch a fiery red ball sink into a purple horizon. Five mosquitoes zipped by me, circling and then going on. I yipped in glee.

The hostess asked, “What are you doing?”

“The mosquitoes flew by me. They’re coming your way.”

She started slapping the air. “I don’t think this test is a very good idea.”

I just laughed. The stupid-looking hat was vindicated.

During my week at the lake, I sat on the dock five evenings in my mosquito wear, daring the pests to catch me if they could. They came, but I conquered. I ended the week bite-free.

Label information on the garments and their hang-tags tell purchasers they may need to apply insecticides to parts of the body that aren’t covered by the clothing. That wasn’t necessary for my North Woods test, but I may have felt differently if I’d been in Florida’s Everglades or on Alaska’s Denali.

I found a couple of occasions when I didn’t want to wear the clothing — kayaking (too restrictive) and at an outdoor symphony concert (too goofy), so I held my nose and sprayed on the DEET. It worked too.

Magellan and L.L. Bean representatives say Buzz Off garments are selling well. The clothing is “flying out of here,” said Mary Rose MacKinnon of L.L. Bean. The Greensboro company that developed the process (www.buzzoff.com) says it has received few complaints.

“One fellow in Iraq said that it didn’t work for him,” said Gail Howell, a Buzz Off spokeswoman. “We sent him some new things to try. A few people have said that it causes a rash if they’re sweating, but it goes away.”

The apparel has been tested and registered by the Environmental Protection Agency, meaning it has undergone “an evaluation to ensure that it does not pose an unreasonable risk to people or the environment,” said agency representative Enesta Jones.

One downside: The bonding process lasts through only 25 washings and is destroyed if clothing is dry-cleaned. But my clothing washed well. I was happy about that after my first night at home. I awakened to find I’d received 15 goodnight kisses from mosquitoes that must have been breeding in my bedroom while I was gone.

The next night, I wore my yellow Buzz Off T-shirt to bed instead of a nightgown. No more bites. The little vampires must have sought their nightcap elsewhere.

*


Rosemary McClure can be reached at rosemary.mcclure@latimes.com.


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