Last year I received a phone call from a popular call-in talk radio station asking if imitation vanilla would repel mosquitoes. Word was out that wearing the vanilla would protect you from being bitten. I also received several e-mails from people, and one man in Canada actually considered creating a mosquito repellent with a vanilla aroma.
At the time I was busy completing the history book and I didn't get around to testing the theory. I know that spiders aren't wild about vanilla and that you can put a vanilla bean in furniture polish to keep them off the furniture (at least until the aroma wears off), so it seemed reasonable to me that mosquitoes might not like vanilla either.
This year I decided I should try the vanilla approach to combatting flying insects. I live next to a lake and it is full-on mosquito season here. West Nile Virus has shown up in the area and health officials anticipate a real problem, so the time was right use myself as a guinea pig. I bought some imitation vanilla at the grocery store and put it on the left side of my face, neck, and left arm. On the right side of my face, neck and right arm I put pure vanilla extract.
The first thing I noticed is that the pure vanilla smelled better on my skin than the imitation. I also found that the aroma seemed to fade fairly quickly, at least to my human nose. Undaunted, I went out into my garden to work. It was late afternoon and the mosquitoes were definitely coming out in force.
The results? Two bites on the left side of my body; two bites on the right! Now, I probably should have had more bites given the number of mosquitoes buzzing around me, but one bite is one too many if the mosquito is carrying a virus. So, chalk up the buzz to another urban legend!
One thing that DOES work is citrus peel. I was out in the fields alongside a river in Mexico several years ago. The mosquitoes were everywhere and all I could think of was malaria or dengue fever. However, we were walking through Mandarin (tangerine) trees, so we picked some Mandarins and I introduced my Mexican friends to the joys of smelling like a Mandarin. I rubbed the fragrant inside of the peel over my face, neck, arms, and hands, and they followed suit. The result kept us from being "eaten alive."
I spoke with the local company that is working on mosquito abatement using natural methods rather than spray. The director said that the most effective mosquito protection continues to be DEET. Although Deet's producer says that it's safe even for small children, it can lift paint off of things, so it can't be perfect. He said that there is a product called Picindirin (or something close to that) that's a little less invasive and there should be a new lemon eucalyptus product coming out next year. Finally, there is a product called "Off." If you have any additional ideas, please let me know and I'll post them.
The moral of the story is that while vanilla may be able to help with cancer prevention it doesn't make it with mosquitoes!