Herbs for Health: Treat Insect Bites and Stings

Use herbs and essential oils for natural insect repellents and bug bite remedies.

  • Pennyroyal
  • Calendula
  • Eucalyptus
    Photography by Steven Foster

A supplement to The Herb Companion from the American Botanical Council and the Herb Research Foundation. 

Aphids, whiteflies, spider mites, leaf-munching caterpillars. Herb ­gardeners know these plant pests all too well. But you don’t need to be a ­gardener to have close—frequently unpleasant—encounters with a whole array of other annoying outdoor insect and arachnid pests.

To distinguish which kind of critter you’re dealing with, just remember: insects have six legs, arachnids, eight. Mosquitoes, fleas, and flies (which are insects), as well as ticks and chiggers (which are arachnids), are biters. Most of these are after your blood. Many of them need a protein meal so that they can lay eggs. Bees, wasps, hornets, and ants (insects all) are stingers. Some kinds of ants both bite and sting. If you spend much time outdoors, bug bites and stings are inevitable. Most cause only transient local pain and/or itching, but about 1 percent of Americans experience severe allergic reactions to insect venom; about fifty die each year.

Furthermore, these pests can transmit diseases. Mosquitoes can carry malaria, yellow fever, or encephalitis; tick-borne Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever are known throughout much of the ­United States. Your local newspaper and television station will surely let you know if any insect- or tick-borne diseases are prevalent where you live and what measures you should take to deal with them.

An ounce of prevention

These pests can make gardening during the warm months disagreeable; when they’re really bad, they can drive you indoors. The first line of defense is prevention. Most people do attempt to stay out of the way of stinging insects, and most of them won’t bother you unless you bother them first. A repellent can deter parasitic bloodsuckers such as mosquitoes, blackflies, deerflies, and horseflies, which attack uncovered skin around the hands, face, neck, and legs. Scientists have tested thousands of substances, including hundreds of plant essential oils, for their insect-repellent potential. Those of pennyroyal, cedarwood, citronella, and eucalyptus are the most ­commonly used in insect repellents.

The essential oil of European pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) has the strongest reputation as an insect repellent. The ­specific name, pulegium, is derived from the Latin pulex, meaning “flea”, and refers to the plant’s re­puted ability to kill fleas. The Roman historian Pliny wrote of pennyroyal: “The blossom of it, fresh gathered and burnt, kills fleas by its smell.”

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