This summer (of 2023) I lived off the grid in a shelter in the Appalachian Mountains. I have lived off the grid in numerous structures, but this was my first time living in an open-air shelter. Insects could come in and out as they pleased and that included mosquitoes and other insects that were after my blood.
I produced a video about my simple and sustainable life in this shelter that created a substantial amount of interest and intrigue in my life. By far, the most common question about my life was, “What do I do about biting insects? People asked about ticks. They asked about mosquitoes. And they asked about me getting eaten by wolves, bears and spirits in the woods.
I’d like to answer this question. In part, because I truly like to answer the questions that people ask. Also in part, because I have some lessons to share from my multiple decades of experience with mosquitoes, ticks and other biting insects.
In relation to my off the grid shelter in the Asheville, North Carolina region, the reason I could live in an open air structure is because it is located in a region, and more particularly a micro-region, that simply does not have a lot of biting insects. However, I have experienced some of the most extreme mosquito, no-see-um and gnat conditions on Earth from the Florida Everglades, to the bayous of Louisiana to the boreal forests of Northern Wisconsin and Minnesota and surprisingly the open plains of Montana. I have been bitten thousands upon thousands of times by insects and I have both suffered and been unphased by it, depending on the day and the chapter of my life.
My Relationship with Mosquitoes and Other Biting Insects
Over the years, I have learned that biting insects are what keep many people from fostering a deeper connection with Earth, even though they so deeply desire to. I have heard from numerous people about overwhelming experiences with biting insects that prevented them from returning to the forests for years. I feel sad when I hear that, because I deeply yearn for all of us to have a special connection with Earth. That is why I’m especially inspired to write on this topic.
I’ll just go ahead and say it. I have a relationship with mosquitoes. In fact, we all have relationships with mosquitoes. For some of us it is a relationship of hatred or fear. My relationship goes much deeper, to a place of understanding. I have found that understanding is one of the key solutions to more productive and healthy relationships. For me, understanding is one of the key tenets to living a life of joy, abundance and harmony. Just as I strive to understand all humans, I strive to understand the Earth, the ecosystems, many of the plants and animals we live among, and yes even mosquitoes and other biting insects.
For many of us, our understanding is simple. If I spray myself with this “bug spray” that I bought at the store, I will get bit by fewer bugs. That works to some degree, but there are substantial downsides to this bug spray. In fact, I almost never wear bug spray. I stopped wearing it about a decade ago and have worn it only a few rare times since then. I don’t even wear natural bug sprays, except with rare exceptions. Instead, I have a deeper understanding and a deeper relationship with these insects.
Understanding the Insects – Flying Insects
The key to understanding an insect is to learn about the habits, life cycle or the lifestyle of that insect. Let’s say that you have a roommate who annoys you. To avoid them, you can simply learn their schedule and be out of the house when they are there and be home when they are gone. And so it goes with most insects. Mosquitoes, for example, bite primarily at dawn and dusk, generally for a relatively short window of the day. When the mosquitoes are in this active feeding stage, I simply minimize my time outside. When I am camping, I am very intentional about making sure that I can be in my tent comfortably before the evening feeding time arrives. In the morning, I often stay in my tent until after feeding time. This takes planning and preparation. It’s not necessarily a sacrifice either. These can be wonderful times for reading, writing, stretching, massaging my body or spending time with a partner.
Every insect has its own habits and as a humanity, we know these habits. The information is out there, and it can be learned by any of us.
When the biting insects are not in their most active state, then my solution is to wear clothes. And not just any clothes. The key is to wear loose fitting clothes that the insects are not able to bite through. If the insects are quite extreme, I will cover up from toes to neck, plus a hat on top, leaving only my face exposed, which I can control access to with my hands. Mosquitoes can bite right through yoga pants. Some insects, like no-see-ums, can move between layers, so tucking in the socks and waistline and wearing tight-fitting collars around the neck and wrists is key to minimizing their bites.
The most challenging times are when it’s both very hot out and the insects are biting a lot. There are times of the year when I completely avoid certain areas. For example, I do not go to The Everglades from about April to about November. Even in the more ideal times, the no-see-ums and mosquitoes can be extreme there and that brings me to my next relational point with these insects. These are tiny little insects with tiny little wings. They can only handle so much wind. Thus, I make the wind my friend. If I know that the insects might be active in substantial numbers, I always choose a campsite that is open to the wind. This takes an understanding of wind patterns, which comes in time with spending more time mindfully and presently with Earth.
Many of the common biting insects are dependent upon water for reproduction, particularly stagnant water. Where there is stagnant water there is much more likely to be larger populations of these insects. So, whenever I am choosing an area where I’ll spend a substantial period of time, I will look around for stagnant water. When camping, I do my absolute best to camp far away from stagnant water. At home, I am diligent about controlling any human-made stagnant water. When I lived in my tiny house in Orlando, Florida I made certain that I had no standing water on site, in buckets of rainwater, in puddles, or in plant matter that formed a bowl such as coconuts and banana leaves. Why? Because mosquitoes lay their eggs in stagnant water.
At the same time, I learned how long the process is from egg-laying to larvae stage to transforming into an adult mosquito that will fly away and seek blood. Depending on time of year (more accurately, water temperatures) it ranges from about 7-14 days in Florida. So, if I was harvesting rainwater in open containers such as 5-gallon buckets, I always made sure to empty the buckets before that time frame ends. There is no harm in eggs being laid and larvae existing, in fact, it’s nutrients for my plants once I use it to water my garden. Again the key here is to understand the insect and to create a relationship with it.
Ticks, are a whole different story from flying insects. Ticks sit on a blade of grass or other plant and wait for something to walk by and brush the plant. At that moment, they let go of the plant and hold onto the animal. That animal is often humans. Ticks can’t jump. Ticks can’t fly. You have to come into contact with plants to get a tick on you (with rare exceptions). The more plants that you come into contact with the more likely you are to get a tick, or multiple ticks on you. Walking down an open forest trail without coming in contact with any plants, you are unlikely to get ticks on you. However, walking on a trail where the plants hang over onto the path, especially from the knee down, is the recipe for ticks making it onto our bodies. Again, the key to avoiding ticks is to understand the insect and to understand the environment you are in.
Another major difference with ticks versus flying and biting insects is that they almost never bite immediately. They will walk on your body, often for many hours, before they actually bite you. So, getting a tick on you is by no means going to result in being bitten by a tick. They key to avoiding tick bites beyond knowing the environment is to wearing clothes that the ticks are not able to get through (shoes, socks tucked into long pants and a long sleeve shirt tucked into the pants). However, I am often naked in the woods or in just shorts. Because, for me, my most natural tick bite prevention is awareness. I check my body often. 99% of all ticks that ever made it onto my body have been picked off by my fingers before they had a chance to bite me and this is the case for most all diligent people in the outdoors. The ticks that have bitten me were almost always when I was not being proactive.
I do want to acknowledge that being lighter-skinned does make it easier for me to spot them visually. At the same time, my body type is also more conducive to efficient and effective tick checks because I can see almost every part of my body and I can easily touch every part of my body. Fortunately, for those of us who could have a more difficult time seeing them on our own bodies, we can partner with other humans to check each other’s bodies.
Forming a Relationship with Ourselves
Through spending more time outside connecting to Earth, it is not only the insects, animals and plants that we will form deeper relationships with. We also form deeper relationships with ourselves. We become more connected to ourselves. As we overcome shame of our own bodies, we can become more comfortable looking closely at our own bodies. We can become more comfortable with other people seeing our bodies. As we start to truly love ourselves and love our bodies we can free ourselves from clothing more easily, when it is time to strip down naked and do a full tick check. In fact, my favorite way to check for ticks is to remove all of my clothes and go for a swim. And actually being naked in the woods makes it easy to spot the ticks, because they can’t hide under my clothes. I don’t recall ever being bitten by a tick when I was naked.
Overcoming Fear Through Understanding
To understand something is to overcome the fear of it. I have very little fear of biting insects because I know them well. I’m sure many of you may be thinking, well what about malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever and many other diseases that can be transmitted by mosquitoes and other biting insects. I do the research on the area where I am spending substantial time to learn if there is a risk of any particular disease and if there is a risk, just how much there is. There is no need to be worried about a disease that is not present. And if the odds of getting the disease are incredibly low, then my worry is also incredibly low. Education, understanding and diligence are all tools to overcoming fear so that we can live more freely in connection to Earth.
Once the unnecessary fear is relieved, then our relationship to actually being bitten can be transformed. Young children often cry when they fall and they aren’t the slightest hurt. Why? Because they don’t understand what is happening. It’s a new experience. They are afraid. But over time as they experience the same thing more, they realize that there’s nothing to fear and they stop crying. Adults can do the same thing. We agonize when we are bitten or stung, because we are afraid of what will happen to us. But once we know that it’s only going to be a minor inconvenience, we can see it for what it is, rather than what it is not. Transforming our relationship with the insects themselves is one step towards freedom and transforming our relationship with the bite is another.
When I lived in Orlando, Florida I lived primarily outdoors. For months, there were no screens on my windows and the roof had open ventilation. Even once I did have screens and I closed up the ventilation, both my kitchen and my bathroom were both outside. It was not uncommon for me to get bitten 50 times in a day by mosquitoes. In fact some months, that was the norm as I cooked my meals. And these mosquitoes were active in the day, a particular species that breeds in stagnant water like buckets. Some days it was very frustrating. But I never felt any fear. I never went hungry. I saw the bites for what they were, a minor nuisance compared to what many humans experience on this Earth.
Becoming Adapted to Insect Bites
For many of us, I believe that the more that we get bitten, the more our bodies can get used to it. I don’t believe this is the case for everyone, but it has been the case for me and many people I have spoken with. In my earlier years, a mosquito bite could be seen as a round, swollen bump. Sometimes it would itch for days. Today, I can be bitten by 50 mosquitoes and there will be no visual sign on my body. And as long as I don’t scratch the bites, I feel little to no itch. As long as I don’t scratch, the next day I have no itchiness whatsoever. Under most circumstances, the only struggle for me with getting bit is the mental struggle, not the physical struggle.
The Primary Ingredient for a Wonderful Life = Gratitude
Did you notice that throughout this entire writing, I never said “when the bugs are bad” instead I said “when the bugs are active in substantial quantities”? There is a simple reason for that. I don’t think any bugs are “bad”. Not mosquitoes. Not spiders. Not cockroaches. Not even the ones that carry diseases. They are not bad. They are not good. They just are. This is my belief system.
Not only are these insects not “bad,” but I am actually grateful for them many times. As I write, it is late fall on the shores of Lake Superior and we’ve had many nights below freezing. The leaves have dropped off the trees and the woods are very quiet. Last night, there was a mosquito in the cabin with me and as it landed on me and prepared to bite my finger I almost started crying. It was tears of connection. I was so happy for some interaction with another life, even though it was about to bite me. I am very grateful to be alive and I fully understand that I can only experience life if other creatures are experiencing life.
In the summer, when there is a swarm of biting insects in front of my face, I often feel grateful. These insects are a clear sign that it is warm out and I absolutely love the warmth. With the warmth comes biting insects and I will gladly accept this over an eternal winter.
I lived in San Diego for five years and one thing that people love about Southern California is the dry climate. Being a desert, there are very few biting insects as most of them need water for their reproductive cycle. I loved my life there, but I grew tired of the dry air and wanted humidity back. When I moved to Florida, I was so grateful for the thunderstorms and the humidity. With humidity there is more life! That included mosquitoes and often when I was being bitten, I just remembered how happy I was to be in an environment with water where mosquitoes could live. I love water so much.
The Desire to be Alive
I’m generally quite happy, but my most unhappy times are when I’m a guest in a climate controlled home where all the windows are closed and the air conditioning is on. While it is nice to have a respite from the biting insects and the heat sometimes, these conditions for extended periods of time result in my feeling less alive. If it goes on for too long, I almost feel a little dead. That’s the whole idea behind climate controlled, “pest” controlled, sealed, sanitized environments, to keep life out, all life except us, that is. When I walk out of these spaces into the air – even if it’s incredibly hot and humid – I always feel more alive.
And even then when I walk out of the spaces generally regarded as comfortable by our society and when the insects bite me, it is a reminder that I am alive. With each bite, I am reminded that I am alive! I am a part of the great web of life. Yes, I am a human and at the same time I am also an animal. I am not separate. Just as I accept that all animals can be bitten, I accept that so, too, can I. Not only can I be bitten, but I want to be bitten. For a life without any bites, is a life that is figuratively dead.
I want to be alive!