Photo by Adobe Stock/ WavebreakMediaMicro.
Insect bites are a warm-weather plague, from black flies in spring to ticks in fall. As climate change decimates the evolutionary baseline of seasonal ebb and flow, insect populations, and the diseases they carry, are increasing. We’re in the midst of a frightening spike in diseases such as Lyme disease, Zika, and West Nile virus, which makes protecting yourself from bites more important than ever.
Although the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers DEET and similar insecticides appropriate for human use, many people prefer to avoid DEET because numerous studies have demonstrated potential harm, and its toxicity is still unclear, especially to children and pollinators. Herbal bug spray is a safe, effective alternative to conventional repellents.
Beyond Do It Yourself: Grow It Yourself!
Herbal bug spray is easy to make. Just combine the ingredients, shake them up, and you’re done! As we consider our impact on the world around us, we strive to limit our carbon footprint by embracing the DIY ethic and hyperlocalism. To benefit your family and your garden, go a step beyond making bug spray from store-bought ingredients by growing the ingredients yourself.
Bioregionalism is the philosophy that our local plant community is capable of meeting our needs. There’s no need for the latest endangered panacea from thousands of miles away: If you learn the nature of your local plants, you’ll discover one that fits any of your culinary or medicinal needs. Food and herbs grown in your area are fresher and safer, and the positive environmental and economic benefits of buying local are well-documented. Bioregionalism makes for good policy around the kitchen table.
Photo by Adobe Stock/EvgeniiAnd.
Meet the Herbs
Nepeta cataria is famous as a soothing herb, but it seems to have the opposite effect on biting insects! A study from the American Chemical Society (ACS) found it to be ten times more repellent than DEET to mosquitoes. Ticks and biting flies also avoid it. In the garden, catnip repels cabbage looper caterpillars, Colorado potato beetles, flea beetles, Japanese beetles, and squash bugs. Substitute: Peppermint.
Companion Planting Notes: Catnip is as unfussy as it gets and does well in beds or hedgerows. Simply invite it in, and let it thrive! I grow it in a perennial border with other weedy plants, such as motherwort and bee balm, but close to my most set-upon vegetables. This way, the pest insects are deterred by the fragrant border, the beneficial predatory insects are encouraged to venture deeper into the garden, and the pollinators can enjoy the catnip blooms.
Harvesting & Medicine-Making Tips: Cut the aerial parts of the plant, strip off the leaves and flowers, and compost the stems. Catnip makes a wonderful glycerite, oxymel, syrup, tea, or tincture.
Lavandula spp. are widely available and wildly popular. Although the cool floral fragrance is appealing to humans, insects disagree: lavender repels black flies, deer flies, fleas, mosquitoes, moths, and slugs. Substitute: Artemisia sagebrushes.
Companion Planting Notes: Lavender appreciates dry soil and shelter, making it ideal for borders along rock walls or fences. Its fragrant flowers support pollination by attracting bees.
Harvesting & Medicine-Making Tips: Cut the flower stalks to make infused honey or oil. The leaves make a milder addition to oil or tea, or you can tie them together with other herbs to create incense or smoke cleansing sticks.
Cymbopogon spp. are fragrant culinary favorites that repel black flies, deer flies, horse flies, and mosquitoes, while attracting bees. Numerous studies on several continents have demonstrated its efficacy, particularly against mosquitoes. Substitute: Eucalyptus.
Companion Planting Notes: There are many appropriate species of Cymbopogon, depending on your climate; one great species is citronella grass (C. nardus), because it’s quite fragrant, especially after rainfall when mosquitoes are more active. As a member of the grass family, treat it with caution in warm climates, because it can spread; however, in my Zone 4 to 5 environment, it’s a fragile annual that I coax along to harvest.
Harvesting & Medicine-Making Tips: Just give it a haircut! Lemongrass is nice fresh or dried, particularly in honey, oil, or oxymel.
Thymus vulgaris is a classic garden standby that makes a powerful insect repellent, scaring away the baddies from garden plants and gardeners alike! Thyme repels biting insects including black flies, deer flies, fleas, mosquitoes, and ticks; in the garden, it deters corn earworms, cabbage loopers, cabbageworms, slugs, tomato hornworms, white flies, and more. Substitute: Basil.
Companion Planting Notes: I use thyme as a ground cover instead of mulch in perennial beds adjacent to vegetables. It maintains soil structure and water access for my more fragile perennials, such as astragalus and licorice, while garnering the attention of pollinators. I also like it in paths, alternating with red clover for a fragrant living mulch.
Harvesting & Medicine-Making Tips: Cut the freshest stems, leaving behind woody or rooted stems. Thyme makes a glorious infused glycerite, honey, oxymel, or tincture.
Achillea millefolium is a common garden herb and meadow wildflower. Beneficial insects love it, and it attracts bees, ground beetles, hoverflies, ladybugs, parasitic and predatory wasps, and soldier bugs. It repels biting insects, including fleas, mosquitoes, and ticks. In the garden, it deters cucumber beetles, flea beetles, Mexican bean beetles, and squash bugs. Substitute: Chamomile.
Companion Planting Notes: Yarrow is easy to grow and integrates beautifully into perennial borders and along paths. I like it near three sisters (squash, corn, and beans) plantings, because it repels relevant pests. I tuck divisions in corners, neglected spots, and anywhere I need to break up a large stand of something that likes to spread, such as spearmint or bee balm.
Harvesting & Medicine-Making Tips: Harvest flowers in bloom and use them fresh or dried in teas, tinctures, oils, salves, or vinegars.
Companion Planting with Bug Spray Herbs
As well as providing safe, effective prevention for bites, bug-spray herbs support the function of organic gardens through companion planting. Plants flourish in community, just as people do, so we grow plants to attract beneficial insects and repel pests. Monoculture doesn’t exist in a balanced natural system because, in nature, diversity is a strength. Bees and butterflies flutter by for echinacea nectar and stay for the vegetable flowers; predatory ladybugs and wasps shelter among the lacy heads of cilantro and wait for unsuspecting cucumber beetles to show themselves; and Japanese beetles steer clear of roses when garlic and leeks are abundant. Plants and animals have evolved side-by-side, so many compounds in plants have parallel functions for people, including deterring pests.
Making a Difference in Your Area, At Home
The bigger picture to homegrown, homemade natural remedies is the ecology of stewardship. We’re a small part of a larger whole, responsible for maintaining our intertwined communities. We care for our gardens and families, our towns and wild places, and our larger world by promoting the function of natural systems. Natural health is more than remedies: At our best, we function as a healthful part of the broader community of plants, animals, and people, just as our pollinator friends do.
Photo by Getty Images/galitskaya.
Homegrown Herbal Bug Spray Recipe
- 1 tablespoon each herb, finely chopped
- 4 to 6 ounces almond or olive oil
- 2 ounces neem oil or cedar-infused oil (recommended)
- 4 ounces witch hazel
- Make sure everything is dry, because water increases the chance of mold. Combine chopped herbs in a glass half-pint jar; add oil.
- Use a spoon to push herbs down. Add extra oil if needed to submerge.
- Label jar, and infuse 1 to 3 weeks in a cool place.
- Strain oil, pressing as much oil out of the herbs as possible.
- Add neem or cedar oil and witch hazel, then shake until well combined.
- Fill a spray bottle or perfume roller, and shake well before each use.
- Store leftovers in a cool, dark place. To store for more than a few months, place the bug spray in a refrigerator.
Note on Consistency: If you prefer a thinner spray, add more witch hazel; for a thicker, lotion-like texture, use vegetable glycerine instead of witch hazel.
Juliette Abigail Carr is a clinical herbalist and the proprietor of Old Ways Herbal School of Plant Medicine (Newfane, Vermont), which offers various courses on herbalism and gardening. Her writing has been published in numerous magazines, and she offers clinical consultations specializing in the health of women, babies, and children. Read more and contact her at www.OldWaysHerbal.com, and on Instagram @OldWaysHerbal.