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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

They bite me

Most of us complained about the weather in Portland last month -- the wettest June on record -- but somebody liked it. The mosquitoes, that is. This year's local crop of Culicidae is bigger and nastier than any I have ever encountered in nearly 32 years living in the Rose City.

Bug spray doesn't stop them. Citronella candles? They laugh in your face. Barbecue smoke may deter them a little. At least the meat right over the coals is safe. Anybody else who steps outside in the evening is automatic Lean Cuisine. And they're starting earlier and earlier. Today the females were out biting in broad daylight and despite a brisk northerly breeze.

Mosquitoes love me. In a group of people, I'm invariably the one who gets bit first and worst. Maybe they like whiter meat -- or is it the wine content?

Skeeters this wicked remind me of growing up in Newark, N.J. in the late 1950s and early 1960s. On the east side of the city, where we lived, were what they now kiddingly call the Meadowlands. Back then, before the land was largely filled in with human garbage and the remains of the occasional Teamsters official, this part of town was rightfully called "the swamps."

The mosquitoes from the Jersey swamps were as big as birds. The beat of their wings was audible. Before you went to bed at night, you'd run around your flat and try to kill them before they bit you in your bed. If you were lucky, you got them before they got you. If you caught up to one with the fly swatter after she had gotten you, she'd gush your blood back at you when you smacked her.

These were the skeeters who bit Frankie Valli, and Connie Francis, and Frank Sinatra, and Bruce Springsteen, and me.

Most of the kids we hung around with had nicknames. One guy just a little older than I, Michael Hudak, was called "Swampy." I never got the full story on that one, but I think on one childhood foray among the reeds and cattails of the swamps down by the Passaic River, Mike had tripped and fallen into some swampy goo. The accepted wisdom was that there was even some quicksand down there that you had to watch out for. Swampy used to run with Stevie Clemente, who somehow got dubbed "Bebop." We spent many a happy night hanging with Bebop and Swampy, mosquitoes notwithstanding.

Back then, the approved way to battle the skeeters was with "punks," or cattails cut from the marshes. If you dried these out a little, they'd burn slowly, like a fine cigar, giving off a distinctive, and fairy pleasant, smell along with their thick smoke. They kept the bugs from coming around. The spirits of the Indians who had once roamed that part of the world no doubt looked down on the practice with approval.

The skeeters in "Down Neck" Newark were so bad that the city used to send around trucks that would spray big loads of insecticide into the air every night in the muggy summers. I'm not sure what those trucks were shooting off, and I guess I don't really want to know now.

But the skeeters of my youth, and the Portland skeeters of 2010, are kid stuff compared to their cousins in Montana. I remember the Mrs. and me camping out near the Custer Battlefield one July, and the mosquitoes were intolerable. The local tribe came through with a truck and sprayed the campground, but within an hour the buggers were back with a vengeance. We lit a lantern inside our tent, and the skeeters started dive-bombing the outside. They were hitting the tent walls so hard and frequently that it sounded like a serious rainstorm.

We haven't been back that way since, but we're getting a reminder of that flavor right here at home this summer. And of course, nowadays there's the whole West Nile virus aspect to fret about. Portlanders, if you haven't already experienced this phenomenon, beware.

Comments (20)

Sorry to hear they've all zoned in on you - perhaps that helps the rest of us. By our standards, this has been a pretty light skeeter year in the place where they're always the worst - 5,000' in the Cascades a few weeks after the snow melts. Last year, we went on our usual July 4th 3-day backpacking trip to 8 Lakes Basin in the Jefferson Wilderness. The skeeters were the worst EVER! Incessant buzzing and biting from sunup 'till sundown and beyond. We swore that there were so many that we could discern a permanent background hum. After we caught dinner in Jorn the second day we actually bugged out a day early - it was that bad.

This past weekend was mild by comparison. A little deet, collar up, and no worries. No doubt paranoid from last year, the wife brought along one of those new motorized Off repellent units and she hardly applied any lotion or Jungle Juice (my staple - they like me too). I was skeptical at first - the tv ads are hokey with the futuristic pseudo "zone of protection" - but given how well it worked out in the woods, I'm now a believer.

I looked very closely at the two landing on my leg as I read this. Both were wearing bibs.

I agree. I went golfing Monday at Broadmore and I came away with bites on my bites. Didn't feel a thing at the time.

I've been fearing the first major attack of the summer, but so far, in inner SE, I haven't been buzzed once. Knock on wood.

When I used to work at the Oregon Country Fair (which is this weekend), I recall the skeeters were pure hell on the day before it opened, then hardly any problem after that. We all figured they overdosed on all the drugs and alcohol.

So forget Deet, etc., and go on a four day binge. The skeeters will be so drunk, they won't be able to breed.

It's something about your blood. I inherited that something from my late mother, and it works with fleas as well as mosquitoes.

While in college, if I visited someone living in a student hovel with one or more unwashed dogs, it took less than a minute after I had come inside before I would feel fleas biting me just above my socks.

I could easily believe that to fleas and mosquitoes our blood is something like a double malted.

I'm spraying my horses with two different kinds of repellents twice a day. Without the spray, they go crazy, stamping and jumping around in an effort to get away from the biting monsters. The sprays keep the bugs at bay and the horses calm, but it sure is a lot of extra work and expense.

I lived on this farm when I was a kid and clearly remember a "special" truck arriving during the summer, spraying DDT around the property, letting loose a haze of insecticide all over the place. Too bad they can't come up with something as effective but safe. DDT really knocked out the mosquito population but of course, was found to be a major Mr. Yuck to humanoids.

Very nearly destroyed dozens of species of birds, too -- such as the peregrine falcon, bald eagle, and the brown pelican (which is now faced with another human-caused systemic mortal threat from BP and US Dept. of Interior derelicts). While outlawed here and most "civilized" places, it's sprayed widely in "developing" countries -- and there's rumors that the pesticide industry would like to have it make a comeback here, as though it just got a bad rap from a few overzealous applicators.

God bless Rachel Carson!

The are lots of natural mosquito repellents, including garlic.

Yes my first night in Montana I woke up to what sounded like an airplane landing and it was the skeeter truck spraying! LOL!
Yep they are still huge over here.

You ain't seen nuthin' til you've spent a night out in the hot, muggy, summer woods of Minnesota. 10,000 lakes and the still 90 degree/ 90 percent humidity of a sauna-like August breeds the suckers HUGE! And relentless.

When I was a kid I was allergic to them. Every bite swelled up to the size of a golf ball. My mom would put calamine lotion on them and I'm sure I must have been a sight covered in large pink lumps all over my body. Yikes, what fun.

Minnesota. It's a good place to be from.

If you want to know where those skeeters are coming from, just walk down to your nearest bioswale.

We have them this year also and normally we don't. I sprayed all my shrubbery and hedges with Orthene and that seemed to help.

New Jersey may be bad when it comes to those bloodsuckers, but you have not had the full mosquitoe experience unless you grew up in New Orleans.

In the late 1960s, we moved from the heart of the city to a new suburb called New Orleans East which had been built in a very swampy area bounded by Lake Pontchartrain and numerous drainage canals.

I played Little League ball at a playground called Kerry Curley that had a drainage canal directly behind it. No amount of "Off" or burning "piks" could save you from these critters.

In fact, I have fond memories of parents in the stands applauding the arrival of the Mosquitoe Board spray trucks which unleashed a lethal fog around the perimeter of the playground.

And talk about an experience at the Skyvue Drive In with all the neighborhood kids piled in the Baudier's station wagon with the windows rolled up in August!

Unfortunately, I too have "sweet blood" and they will find and feast upon me...

Thanks for the memories, JB.

I remember those trucks from New Jersey (Leonia) and Virginia. As far as we all knew they were spraying "malathion" - but that's kid wisdom, I suppose I should Google it to make sure it's actually a real thing before posting this comment... Yeah - I got eaten up last night by mosquitoes. That's new for me. Guess I better go get some bug repellent...

Minnesota. It's a good place to be from.

That's what my parents always say...

Jack, good thing you're not back in Montana right now...I've heard the skeeters are prehistoric size this year...

Funny - a couple of my neighbors and I were briefly talking about this last night - but they were biting as we spoke. Hopefully this hot weather will dry up the breeding grounds.

Haven't had a one around here (SW Portland). Locally, if I want skeeters, I go to Wahtum Lake. Almost as bad there as they were in northern B.C.

I got a bite on my big toe that I just couldn't find a satifsying way to scratch.
They seem to leave some people alone, like my fortunate office mate.

My parents moved up to northeast Wisconsin back in 1985, and I thought the mosquitoes were bad in northern Michigan. Oh, these not only sounded like birds, but you'd swear that the damn things were humming "Flight of the Valkyries" as they were homing in on you. The bloodsucking was bad enough, but I remember washing my dad's car, scrubbing at the thick layer of dead mosquitoes all over the front, and watching as paint came off with the bugs.

To give you an idea of the problem, I was a tropical fish junkie back then, and my favorite pet shop was next to an otherwise undistinguished bar. The front window was a huge double-paned one, about ten feet by five feet, and the first time I saw it, the six-inch-wide gap between panes was about a quarter-full of dead mosquitoes that had slipped through some unknown gap and found themselves trapped. Even more horrifying was discovering that the bar owner cleaned out that gap every year, and the window was usually that loaded by October. I had a lot of reasons for leaving Wisconsin, but that was about halfway up the list.

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