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Bugging Out

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While normal people spend their summers playing baseball or braving the surf, I spent mine hunting. My prey, the cunning Culex Pipiens, also known as the Northern House Mosquito, seems to spend most of the time hunting me. This war against mosquitoes is not simply based on an aversion to painful itchy bites. According to Florida A&M University, mosquitoes "cause more human suffering than any other organism -- over one million people die from mosquito-borne diseases every year." This includes West Nile Virus, malaria, dengue fever, and encephalitis.

After waging a losing battle to mosquitoes over several summers, I decided to invest nearly my entire summer vacation investigating how to defend myself from adult female bloodsuckers (the mosquito variety, of course). For nearly three months, I tested three different propane-powered mosquito-exterminating devices: Mosquito Magnet Liberty Plus, Mosquito Deleto, and the SkeeterVac. The basic idea is that these units are placed upwind of where your family is likely to be and, after a four-week cycle, the life cycle of the areas' mosquitoes should be disrupted as more and more are sucked-in and captured. All three machines performed largely as advertised, but there were lessons learned. (I also experimented with new mosquito-repelling clothing, "Buzz-Off", from Orvis, and more about that later.)

All three of these mosquito catchers use the same approach: propane powers a system creating heat and producing carbon dioxide that mimics the body temperature and exhalation of mosquito prey. As the mosquitoes close in, they smell the Octenol lure: a chemical scent irresistible to most of the little buggers. (Sadly, not for the vicious Tiger Mosquito which plagues the South.) Once they get close enough, these machines vacuum the bugs into bags where they dehydrate and die.

Mosquito Magnet Liberty Plus
This is the SUV of mosquito killers: a state-of-the-art system designed to protect an acre by luring and capturing female mosquitoes through an ingenious array of tricks. The Mosquito Magnet comes with a DVD explaining its use, a hefty user manual, and a variety of tools to clear, clean, and attach the fairly complex and high-tech unit to propane canisters.
I was amazed at how precisely the Mosquito Magnet Liberty Plus unit worked. Day after day, I watched as the bag slowly filled with mosquitoes and only mosquitoes.

Sadly, my entire experience with the Mosquito Magnet Liberty Plus was hardly ideal. The first unit I received did not work at all. I spent several days trying everything I could to get the unit to work. The battery on the unit must first be charged for 24-hours, the gas line must be clear, plus gas must not be turned on too quickly or it will set off the delicate safety valve. (None of these variables turned out to be the problem, however.) Mosquito Magnet did have a very knowledgeable phone support team who walked me through every aspect of troubleshooting and it became clear that the unit must have been damaged in shipping. This, I was told, was unusual and they sent another unit quickly.

Well, the second unit arrived, the gas ignited, and the fan began to spin. Mosquitoes began to come and die. However, even with the second unit, I found that operation was hardly stress-free. This unit often made a surprisingly noisy whistling sound and it needed considerable tender-love-and-care over the three-month test period. The fuel line needed clearing after tank changes and the overly complex electrical system often needed recharging. (This was contrary to the operating instructions which indicated that a single charge each year would keep the unit going all season long.) There was no question that of all the machines tested the Liberty Plus did target mosquitoes most precisely.

As a techno-geek, I actually found the fiddling around somewhat fascinating and even took apart the first unit to see what had gone wrong. (One of the two circuit boards had somehow been jostled loose.) Despite placing the working unit in several locations, this more expensive and certainly more high-tech machine did not, in my tests, significantly outperform the other less expensive units mentioned below. (It is fair to note that testers of comparable units found wide variations in their results depending on the location and even which type of mosquitoes are in the neighborhood.) Street price is about $599. Count on also spending another $20 bucks every 24 days or so on replacement propane, plus about $15 for spare Octenol lures and $10 for special CO2 cartridges.

Coleman's Mosquito Deleto 2500 Active System
This unit, from Coleman, was significantly easier to operate and was extraordinarily effective in capturing a wide range of critters. Unlike the Mosquito Magnet, the Deleto somehow managed to suck in flies and all sorts of other stuff besides mosquitoes. The Octenol lure was much larger and lasted longer. Set up was easy and a simple push-button electric starter worked. Igniting the unit was noisy, pushing the starter button over and over and the green "on" light took a bit of time to illuminate. It does require a little experimentation to determine the best site for mosquito hunting, but when I moved the unit near a low-lying fairly damp area, we hit the mother lode. I couldn't believe how many of the pesky critters this machine trapped in its guillotine-style catching-drawer. Coleman has opted for a lower-tech approach and, frankly, I think it worked very well for the price: $399. It came with a nice little cover for the rusty propane cans and two metal pegs to keep the unit from tumbling over in the grass. The longer I tested this unit, the more I liked it: for the simplicity, ease of use, and efficiency in doing what it is supposed to do. Additional Octenol lures are $6 each and you will need a new one about once a month, as you swap out propane tanks.

Blue Rhino's Skeeter Vac
The least expensive unit in the family was Blue Rhino's Skeeter Vac, designed to protect ½ an acre against mosquitoes. The good news is the price: about $150. The bad news is that this unit under performed in the critical area of actually catching enough mosquitoes. It did catch many little critters, but it did as well with flies as it did with 'skeeters. In the two months I had to test this unit, it did not come close to capturing as many bugs as the more pricey units above. The system had a good ignition system: using a single replaceable battery to start the propane going.

Blue Rhino designed the unit with a dial-system to allow users to decide how much air-flow and attractant to emit. I did not find this feature especially clear or particularly useful. I was impressed, however, at how quickly and easily the unit could be deployed. Instead of capturing bugs in a disposable bag, insects are trapped in a screened tray to die. All the units, including the least expensive SkeeterVac, burned propane at the same basic rate: requiring new canisters approximately every 24 days. Despite the plastic hooded enclosure, the modest electronics on the SkeeterVac did appear to weather and even rust during the fairly wet summer it spent outdoors. The SkeeterVac is available at Wal-Mart and other stores.

Buzz Off Insect Shield Clothing
Not content to simply wage high-tech war against biting insects, I had a visit from the nice clothing folks at Orvis. They brought a selection of "Invincible Socks" and other mosquito-repelling clothing, treated with "Buzz Off Insect Shield." The active ingredient in "Buzz Off" clothing is permethrin, a synthesized form of the natural insect repellent found in the Chrysanthemums. Instead of needing to spray often hazardous chemical insect repellents, Buzz Off clothing features an odorless and "natural" way to repel annoying insects.

I tried Orvis's "Buzz Off" treated pants, shirts, socks and hat and found that the clothes did keep bugs away. After a short while, my darling children started wearing the clothes to sleep to protect themselves from the night bites they had received. Buzz Off clothing can be laundered normally in the wash, but the insect repelling permethrin does start to fade after about 25 washes. Nonetheless, I found that these Orvis duds actually do foil mosquitoes and made me look 'mahvelous' to boot. In addition to 'skeeters, Buzz Off is advertised to combat ticks, chiggers, and other biting insects. Since none of those bit me, I guess the Orvis Insect Shield Clothing did all that too! Socks are 3 for $45; a safari shirt $79; poplin pants $98. (My wife tells me the floppy hat looks too ridiculous.)

By Daniel Dubno