Protecting You & Your Horse From Summer Insects

Entomologist and horse lover Marty Matisoff has a few tips.

Flickr/Conor Lawless/CC

Summer is a time for trail riding, outdoor equestrian events, barbecues, and family gatherings. Unfortunately, it’s also the prime time for insects, particularly pest insects such as mosquitoes, house flies, gnats, fleas, midges, ticks, lice, and other unsavory pests. As I’ve mentioned in past columns, developing an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program for horses in the field is difficult because of the vast areas and different landscapes. Various methods can be used to control insects in and around houses, in backyards. Some people use insect netting around areas where people congregate, while other use everything from citrus candles to “pit traps,” special tools entomologists use to collect and count pest insects.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m not an advocate of insecticides and herbicides; I recommend using them only as a method of last resort. Before you can adopt any IPM, you first must determine which insect pests are in your area, what they eat, where they live, and what damage they cause. Once you know which insects and arthropods are in your area, you can determine how to control them.

If you live in a tick-infested area, try to avoid brushing against plants or riding in stagnant water. Ticks are phoretic, which means they can only get on you when you bump against them. You can also wipe DEET on your face and your horse’s face if the problem is severe. The best thing to do is to stay in the center of trails and paths where you’re unlikely to meet the pests. You might also try wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants. What I used to do when I managed bees (before I became allergic to them), was to tuck my pant legs in my socks, then wrap duct tapes snugly around my sock. It works.

Frequently check for insects on yourself, your horses, your pets, and your children. This is particularly important to prevent illness or death from arthropods that vector deadly pathogens, such as Lone Star ticks. Ticks can only infect humans and other animals when they’re allowed to feed for several hours.

Remove manure, garbage, grass clippings, and other organic matter as soon as possible. These are breeding areas for many insects and arthropods. Use flypaper in external doorways and, as strange as it sounds, vacuum entryways and other areas where flies and other arthropods congregate. If you do vacuum up flies and other living pests, you need to place the dust bag into a plastic bag and then leave it in a freezer for a couple days to completely kill the flies. This is a humane method for killing house flies, black horse flies, blow flies, blue bottle flies, cluster flies, deer flies, face flies, and various arthropods.

There are certain insects that are harmless and can be killed by chemical applications, such as dog-day (Neotibicen canicularis) and periodical cicadas (Magicicada spp.), butterflies (Order: Leptidoptera), honey bees (Apis mellifera), and dragonflies (Order: Odonata). While some of these insects look like they come directly from a horror film, they do not bother people or animals and should be left alone, if possible.

IPM program are centered around three key factors:

  1. Prevent
  2. Monitor
  3. Control

I’m in the process of writing a grant to test a chemical-free IPM program. If funded, I will evaluate the effectiveness of entomopathogens (i.e., microorganisms that are pathogenic to insects, mites, and ticks though not humans or horses), predatory wasps (Order: Hymenoptera), birds (Class: Aves), bats (Order: Chiroptera), nontoxic carnivorous plants (e.g., Venus flytraps (Dionaea spp.), California pitcher plants (Darlingtonia californica), and sundews (Drosera spp.). The goal of this study is to determine if these control measures can be used to control insects and other arthropods on a 350-acre natural habitat that includes a pond, a meadow, a creek, and a woodland area located at Kentucky State University’s Environmental Education and Research Center (EERC), 307-acre wild life preserve in Henry County.

In the meantime, I’m preparing my own IPM on my property to see if I can control biting pest insects that make outdoor living a nightmare. I’ll keep you posted on this project as it moves forward. As far as I know, nobody else has looked at this approach for managing pest insects.

Marty Matisoff has a Bachelor of Arts in English from Western Illinois University with a concentration in Romantic Era literature and a Master of Science in Entomology from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. He is a full-time research entomologist at Kentucky State University, as well as an art agent for his wife, award-winning figurative and equine artist Sharon Matisoff. In his free time, he enjoys writing flash and short story fiction, and he is studying clarinet with Los Angeles Jazz Saxophonist Robert Kyle.

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