Spring is a wonderful season in the natural year. Birds are building nests and hatching eggs, mammals are giving birth and raising young, and the foliage is erupting in blooms and new growth. Some of the earliest foraging foods such as ramps/wild leeks (allium tricoccum) and fiddleheads (matteucia struthiopteris) are beginning to emerge to be gathered and to spread their growth in an area. And, the scourges of all outdoor pursuits also become active: ticks (order Ixodida), mosquitoes (family Culicidae), and black flies (family Simuliidae).

Most of us often wonder why these blood sucking insects were created. Certainly the apex of their existence cannot be the transmission of illnesses such as Lyme disease, West Nile Virus, or Eastern Equine Encephalitis. Scientists have studied all aspects of the lives of these creatures. They know the life cycles, the physical attributes, and the disease transmission capabilities of the bugs. We can read about facts such as that it is mostly females that bite humans and animals to suck blood, or that the blood sucking is aided by anticoagulants, enzymes, and histamine in the insect’s saliva which prevent clotting and numb the bite area. Most of us don’t care about that, we just want to swat them.

Light colored long sleeve shirt, head net, and brimmed hat.

We know that by staying indoors we can avoid unpleasant insect encounters completely, but who wants to stay indoors all the time? The urge to get ourselves outside in the spring is especially noticeable if we have also had a bout of “cabin fever” in late February. Of course, it is possible to use chemical repellents such as DEET or picaridin to try to keep the creatures at bay, although we really don’t know the full effects of these chemicals on our human bodies. Some of these chemicals have very bad rapid effects on household pets and we may want to avoid them for that reason.

There are some benign tactics we can employ such as wearing light colors, long sleeved shirts and long pants, brimmed hats, and head nets or net clothing. These more passive techniques are especially useful for children, people with compromised immune systems, or those that just don’t want the chemical exposures. There is also some research that indicates that using soaps or shampoos with coconut oil or peppermint oil can provide a repellent function. We all know someone who just naturally seems to avoid getting bitten by insects. It is up to each individual to find the course of action that works best on them.

The question now is, where is the “praise” promised in the headline? Most of the support for these (and other) insects would come from birds, lizards, and animals. Insects of all kinds are sources of food for many species of birds, bats, and other insects (surprise!), as well as a number of animals. Opossums, for example, can kill and eats as many as 4,000 ticks in a week. Timber rattlers can eliminate ticks by eating mice and other small mammals on which ticks feed. Scientists might also argue that the presence of these insects would indicate the overall health of the local ecosystem. These types of insects also aid in the process of natural selection by helping transmitting diseases to an older and weaker host animal that them dies to give more space and opportunities for younger and healthier animals.

Ideas like this are not always easy answers for our human brains to accept, but the natural world has ways of continuing the cycle of life and death. Insects have a place in the ecosystem, just like humans, and we need to understand as best we can how all of the different parts make up the entirety of the outdoor experience.