B-1 Those Critters Away!

by Thomas R. Fasulo
Entomologist and Civil War Reenactor
37th Iowa Volunteer Infantry

There has been a lot of concern expressed by reenactors about ticks, chiggers, mosquitoes and other flies, ants and other 6- and 8-legged creatures that we often come in contact with while in the field for a reenacting event. Some of the concern goes beyond just suffering stings and bits. Some of the aforementioned critters are possible vectors of diseases, some of which can be fatal. So let's ask 'Mr. Science' (me) how to protect yourself against the bits and stings of various arthropods.

There are plenty of repellant aerosols, pastes, dusts and such. The most common active ingredient in these is N,N-diethyl-meta-tolumide (DEET). This material was developed by the U.S. Medical Corps, and even they don't know why it works. Research by an entomologist in the USDA labs here in Gainesville, FL shows that there might (emphasis on the might) be some connection between DEET and Gulf War Syndrome. The research showed that it takes more then just DEET (if DEET is even involved) to bring on the symptoms. However, this received a lot of play in the media. As a result, people are now leery of this proven repellent, and application instructions are more precise. For one thing, you are now advised not to apply it directly to the skin. As an ex-Boy Scout and ex-Marine who has often "bathed" in the stuff, I find this funny. But, if you are a'feared of DEET what do you use?

The absolute best way to avoid stinging or biting arthropods is to never leave your house. (However, if you are a sloppy housekeeper, this method isn't guaranteed.) Obviously, this is a reasonable solution to avoiding insect bites, even if the dot.com companies would like you to believe that a "virtual" life is satisfying. As for myself, I don't seem to have any problems being bothered by insects and other crawlies when I'm reenacting. I always thought this was due to professional courtesy, since I am an entomologist. Recently, I realized that all those annoying arthropods might be avoiding me for another reason.

Body odor. That's right... You need to smell bad to keep the insects away. Now we all smell bad at the end, and even in the middle, of an event. The secret is to smell bad from the start. In fact, the real secret is to smell bad days before the event. Ever open a bottle of multivitamins? Remember how bad it smelled? It's the B-1 vitamin that gives off that smell. Ever hear of "Mosquito Tabs?" The camping and hunting stores sell them. If you start taking them days before going out into the wilderness, the mosquitoes aren't supposed to bother you. Know what's in these expensive "Mosquito Tabs"? It's just the B-1 vitamin that costs three to four times more than at the health food store because it is in a different bottle.

You need to overdose on B-1 to saturate your body with it. When this happens your pores exude the B-1 smell and our favorites arthropods veer away to the guy or gal next in line. (Don't worry, people's noses aren't that fine-tuned and your relationship with your significant other won't be affected.) Now I said "overdose," but that's not possible because B-1 is a water-soluble vitamin. You can't achieve a toxic level because your body passes any excess out in urine after it reaches the saturation level. Only vitamin A and vitamin K are fat soluble. Too much of these (A and K) can be dangerous. (One piece of advice I remember is to never eat a polar bear's liver. It is so high in vitamin A that you can die almost immediately. This is why my unit in Florida never serves polar bear liver during a reenactment.)

My advice is to take your vitamins. Take plenty of B-1 in a good multivitamin. The books I have state that B vitamins are synergistic, in that they are more potent when taken together than when taken separately. They also recommend taking equal amounts of B-1, B-2, and B-6. Also eat well. You don't have to be Mr. Science to know that Big Macs, Diet Pepsi and Twinkies are not high in B-1 or even any other vitamins. Good sources of B-1 include dried yeast, rice husks, whole wheat, oatmeal, peanuts, pork, most vegetables, bran and milk. When I looked this up (by request of another reenactor) I was astounded. I eat all this stuff in quantity. Every morning I have brewer's yeast and organic peanut butter as part of my breakfast. I'm hypoglycemic and need a sugar-free, high protein breakfast to start me off in the morning. On days I don't eat peanut butter, I often have oatmeal. I love steamed rice and pork, and often have them together and independently. I eat plenty of the other stuff also. Therefore I must smell bad! (to the arthropods anyway.)

B-1 is also called the "morale" vitamin due to its beneficial effects on the nervous system and mental attitude. This beneficial effect has a secondary benefit in that it could help us in our dealings with farbs, and reenactors who won't galvanize. Don't try and save money by buying cheap vitamins at the supermarket. Their quality varies considerably.

And here is some more good advice. Don't pass this information on to anyone else. If all reenactors starting taking B-1 and eating these foods, we'd lose our secret protection. The arthropods, driven by starvation and lack of non-bad-smelling hosts, will hold their pheromone sensory preceptors ("noses" to non-entomologists) and attack us.

And finally, my last piece of advice. The red imported, Solenopis invicta, and black imported, Solenopis richteri, fire ants weren't introduced to the United States until the early part of the 20th century. Therefore, if during a reenactment or a living history you find yourself standing or lying in a fire ant bed, don't be a farb! Be a truely authentic reenactor and ignore them. Remember, the ants were not here during the Civil War and therefore you must pretend not to notice that they are stinging the hell out of you!


While the above information may be of help to reenactors seeking a way to avoid arthropod problems without using modern-day, commercial repellents, the fact remains that such repellents are often necessary. This is especially true in that individuals utilize vitamins differently. Insects and other pests are attracted to certain individuals, and leave others alone, for many different reasons. For example, it is known that mosquitoes are attracted to dark clothing. In this case, Federal reenactors, with their dark blue coats, are more attractive to many mosquitoes than Confederate reenactors who wear grey.

As a result, I suggest that all reenactors access the following files on many different repellent products and guidelines for their use.

Also available are press releases from the Florida Department of Health regarding the current status of mosquito-transmitted viruses and Florida counties currently under medical alert.


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