Biodiversity: the importance of protecting insects


June 22, 2023


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It’s that warm and sunny time of year again! Early-blooming flowers have already gone to seed, greenery is springing up all around, and warm temperatures are reawakening many people who seem to have been asleep since autumn. Oh, and our greatest (and tiniest) outdoor foes are back! Mosquitoes, deer flies and biting midges are gnawing away at our skins, and you may be tempted to draw out your best insecticide to deal with the invasion. This means now is the perfect time to discuss insect control and protecting the planet. We all have the same goal of avoiding bug bites, so let’s go!

This article was written in collaboration with Earth Day Canada.

Earth Day Canada

In this article, you will learn more about the role of insects in biodiversity:

  1. Why health, planet and insect control don't mix
  2. How to avoid pesky insects
  3. Natural ways to ward off insects
  4. The right gear for protection
  5. How to cope (just a little!)

Why health, planet and insect control don’t mix

Let’s talk for a moment about the main active ingredient in most repellents you might end up spraying or slathering on your skin this summer: DEET.
DEET targets the blood-detecting receptors of insects, which makes our little foes unable to pick up our scent. Though it is recognized as the most efficient insect repellent (one that “repels but doesn’t kill”), it is actually monitored by Health Canada.
Use in young children is strongly discouraged, and there are recommendations for toddlers and adults. Few sources provide information on the effects of this product, but all public health authorities agree that excessive and/or unnecessary use should be avoided.
In addition to the little-known risks to human health, DEET has a proven impact on the ecosystems we share our planet with. Indeed, as you can probably imagine, it doesn’t only affect the insects we consider to be pests. It also has an impact on other insects, disorienting them and making them vulnerable to predators. It can also impact the nervous system of mammals and has the particularity of being practically insoluble in water, making it a strong and persistent pollutant.
It seems reason enough to refrain from using DEET, both for your health and that of the planet.

How to avoid pesky insects

So, if we do refrain, how can we fight off our blood-drinking outdoor companions? A good place to start is by getting to know them… so we can better avoid them!
Because insects are temperature-sensitive, they are not usually active in intense heat or cold. You can then get away from them by climbing to higher altitudes, especially when you pitch your tent for the night on long excursions. Just watch out around dawn and dusk, and in shady areas.
Keep as far away as possible from the wetlands, where they breed and thrive, and avoid stagnant waters like ponds and swamps. Stay away from dense forests, too, where the deadwood floor is home to many happy visitors.
When setting up camp, try to pick windy areas so the breeze can keep away most members of the swarms. Light up your campfire before night falls and the temperature drops to the preferred point of insects.

Natural ways to ward off insects

Just because you don’t use DEET doesn’t mean you’re going without all the possible means to ward off insects.
There are some natural products that can help you in your summertime struggle. Soybean oil is effective for up to 4 hours, and essential oils such as lemon eucalyptus, lemongrass, lavender, lemon, camphor, pine and geranium can be used in blends to apply to clothing or skin. And if you get bitten, vinegar, bicarbonate or lavender essential oil will help ease the itching!
Feel free to ask for advice in specialized or zero-waste stores; many have homemade recipes to share! Be sure to follow the instructions, especially regarding sun exposure and frequency of application.
If you opt for non-natural products, avoid the infamous DEET and prefer alternatives with icaridin; their effectiveness is comparable to that of DEET, but with far fewer safety warnings. As a general rule, try to avoid swimming after applying chemical products – or using them if you plan on taking a dip.

The right gear for protection

You wouldn’t think of setting off on a winter expedition without any equipment, and the same goes for the summer season: clothing will always be your best ally. Try as much as possible to cover up completely, choosing light colours and using bug nets in heavily infested areas. Make sure you protect your face, as insects are particularly fond of this area.

Check your tent’s mosquito nets and closures at the start of the season to avoid unpleasant surprises, and opt for red light (or no light) when entering the tent. Consider using portable repellent devices, which can be effective for extended, static stays.

How to cope (just a little!)

Every fight eventually comes to an end, and there are times when you simply have to surrender.
We can’t enjoy the beautiful landscapes of our country without their biodiversity – even the components we would rather do without.

Here are two tried-and-tested tips to keep in mind if you want to give in gently and learn to cope with insects:

  • Stay calm and try not to become agitated – your sweat and breath will attract them even more.
  • Be patient – it gets better with time (and bites), we promise!

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