“If all insects on Earth disappeared, within 50 years all life on Earth would end.  If all human beings disappeared from the Earth, within 50 years all forms of life would flourish”  (Jonas Salk)

I watched an episode of “Naked and Afraid” recently as it was set in Peninsular Malaysia and I wanted to see how the contestants got on – the title of the programme was something like “Pain in the forest” which seemed to reflect the vicarious delight we were meant to take in watching these would-be survivors endure 21 days of suffering from the comfort of our armchairs.

mosquitoA large part of the problem they faced was due to insects –  bites from mosquitos, leeches, and sand flies plagued them almost immediately and the discomfort was something that was clearly demoralising (although, to their credit, they took it all with stoic good humour) Obviously being naked doesn’t help in such situation but what really struck me was why had they chosen to set up camp for three weeks in area where such bloodsuckers flourish?

They were dropped off on the shore of a lake somewhere and set up camp more-or-less at the tree-line itself.  This was exposed  secondary jungle where bamboo, tall grasses and other sun-hungry plants thrive.  It was also marshy and damp.  However just up the hill from the shoreline was nice primary forest – tall trees and canopy – where there are less blood suckers, more protection from the elements, where it’s not marshy and there’s less nasty undergrowth to hack through.

To be fair to the contestants they may have been told to camp in a certain spot: perhaps chosen to make life harder than necessary (and thus more entertaining for us?) or perhaps for logistical filming reasons (i.e. easy for the camera crew to get in and out).

Putting aside the risk of disease for a moment, the simple irritation and discomfort caused by getting multiple insect bites is enough to test anyone’s patience and can turn you from someone who is calmly making good, rational decisions into someone so distracted and miserable that only the thought of escaping the insects dominates your thoughts.

On a number of trips I’ve seen people laid low by insect bites, reaching the point where they simply can’t take it anymore and just want to get out of the jungle asap and never come back….and I understand this, insects can be unbelievably persistent, show no mercy and will just keep biting you until you can’t take it anymore.

So I wanted to give some basic tips on how to minimise the problem with insects and how to avoid getting too many bites (one or two bites are just part of the experience!) and a key aspect here is awareness: being aware of your surroundings can, in itself, make a huge difference.

For example, just 50 yards from my house is an area where the mosquitoes are so bad that within moments there will be at least 10 of them buzzing you and they’ll bite any exposed skin within seconds.  Whenever I go there I cover up as much as I can and still I get a bite or two….it’s almost unbearable to stay there for more than a few minutes.  The reason there are so many mosquitos there is the proximity to a bamboo grove where water trapped in dead bamboo provides a fertile brewing ground.

…and yet, we rarely get mosquitoes in, or next to, the house.  A difference of just 50 yards can make a big difference!

There is a saying that  “If you want to get rid of mosquitos, drain the swamp that breeds them”.  For the jungle trekker the corollary would be “If you want to avoid mosquito bites, don’t camp by a swamp”.

sweat_beesMosquitos breed in stagnant water but this isn’t only limited to marshes and pools, they can also breed in water trapped in fallen logs, dead bamboo, even in water trapped in banana and palm tree fronds.  In a healthy, primary forest you get less of them (often none at all) – not only because the conditions aren’t ideal for them to breed but also because there are other creatures that prey on them (bats, other insects, birds).

Similarly  leeches need damp conditions to function – in dry, well drained parts of the forest leeches aren’t a big problem; in areas where it’s damp they are.  During the dry season leeches will dig down into the mud and patiently wait for the rains.

The other thing to realise about bloodsucking insects is that they need to feed – you won’t find leeches/ticks/mosquitos in areas where there are no animals for them to feed upon – and the presence of leeches is an indicator of the amount of wildlife in a forest (a good thing!).  So, if you want to avoid a tick bite, don’t stand near a wild boar nest or anywhere where they’ve been digging around as wild boar are absolutely covered in ticks.

I’ve talked about most of these insects in detail in earlier videos but in this video I wanted to try and sum up some general advice on the main insects that people seem to have a problem with: from the infamous ones that a lot of people fear (scorpions, centipedes, giant ants, spiders) that are really not an issue as long as you leave them alone (and walk around with your eyes open!), to  those that are potentially lethal (bees and wasps), to those that are after your blood (mosquitos, leeches, ticks and sandflies).

1. Choose you camp site carefully: if it turns you chose badly and the site becomes infested with biting insects – move!

2. Cover-up: have a set of dry clothes for the evening that cover your skin and don’t leave ankles/wrists etc exposed.  You could spray yourself with lots of DEET or other repellants but if you’re well covered up this is rarely necessary and the problem with repellents is that if they aren’t spread over all your exposed skin the sneaky mosquitos will quickly find that small, untreated area and bite you there.

3.  Get off the ground:  this will protect you both from leeches and also from an unwanted visit from a scorpion, ant or centipede.  Hammocks are the way to go.

4. Get a fire going:  Smoke keeps a lot of the bugs away and the trick here is to produce a smokey fire.  To get your fire to smoke throw on some green leaves or green wood.

5.  Turn off the light: don’t leave a torch/nightlight on through the night as you’ll get all sorts of bugs coming along to check it out – not necessarily the biting kind, but they can be irritating.

6. Be tolerant:  A few bites are inevitable in the jungle and you just need to suck it up, the important thing is not to scratch those bites you get as this will only make things worse.  Similarly try to avoid getting bites on your feet (use leech socks) as bites on your feet can get rubbed by your boots which exacerbates the problem  – a leech bite elsewhere on your body is not such a big issue as long you don’t scratch it.

7. Treat the jungle with respect:  try to cut as little as possible, step carefully and try to minimise the disturbance your path through the jungle is making and you’ll dramatically reduce the number of bites you get from insects offended by your foray into their homeland.