CASKE 2000 > Stories > Adventure > Honduras > Insect Asylum
8/30/99 by Luke Shullenberger
I imagine that for insects living in remote, swampy regions of Central America, human blood is for them like gasoline, during an oil embargo, is to us. When it's available they all swarm to pump their share. Over thousands of years of evolution, each specie has become remarkably efficient at tapping into the sources that stumble into their midst. With few exceptions, you can run but you can't hide. And for boaters looking for that picture perfect beach or lost lagoon, be forewarned that to the insect kingdom, you represent the next best thing to a swimming pool full of platelets. Upon setting foot on shore, the welcome party arrives in under a minute.
Before addressing prevention and first-aid issues related to massive blood loss, I'd like to highlight the most ubiquitous species and delve into their specific bloodlust ratings, which I'll refer to as the "Dracula Factor". In this light, I've encountered two grand ironies in my time here. Number one is that it's not always a matter of pride and joy to have what others want. Number two is that in an area of such profound bio-diversity that creates life and death struggles among the ranks for the limited resources, vampyric insects are represented by relatively few species, all which thrive. The Dracula Factor takes into account attack strategy, speed, aggressiveness, size, thirst (as measured by size of resulting welt), and a kamikaze rating that measures a willingness to die for the collective good.
"Oh dios mio los hehenes!" (Oh my god the sand flies!) A Chilean traveler on Glover's Reef, Belize.
Ricardo Montalban and tiny Tattoo welcomed people to Fantasy Island, the tiny hehenes welcome you to the Caribbean. Honduras for some reason houses most of them and any trip to the Bay Islands will give you ample opportunity to experience their all-embracing hospitality. They are so miniscule that they are difficult to see and penetrate most mosquito netting. When I first encountered them in Belize I was incredulous as red itchy welts popped up all over my arms and legs with no apparent cause. Pull out the reading glasses to see these predators, they're smaller than chiggers and no-see-ums in the States. Yet despite their size, relative lack of speed, and easy slapability, the Dracula Factor on them is at the top of the scale. Especially active at dawn and dusk, they attack en masse any exposed skin and the resultant blemishes make chicken pox look pretty. With no grey matter to speak of, they are clearly programmed for one thing, and like the Mongol hordes, as soon as one is killed it is replaced by another.
Evolution has streamlined their functions to the primitive basics. Under the microscope you see large mandibles and a storage sac for blood. Only after gorging themselves do they become visible on your skin as tiny red corpuscles. The infamous Chinese torture technique "Death by a Thousand Cuts", would be infinitely preferable to being thrown naked into a small room with a few thousand sand flies. Insanity in this case would precede death.
"The shrill scream of the mosquito, like the wail of the Sirens of the sea, besiege men and drive them mad."
Mosquitos are the wildcat well drillers of the Central American Insect Kingdom. The major metropolitan areas are concentrated in and around mangrove swamps, estuaries and other brackish pools of stagnant Hepatitis cocktail. The savvy traveler knows this. The uninhabited stretches of beach that beckon are the unpredictable areas. Mosquitoes come in all shapes and sizes and if you avoid the aforementioned mega-hatcheries, you come into contact with only a couple types. Unfortunately these happen to be the alpha-females and their minions. Yes, it's the fairer sex that brings home the "bacon" for its eggs; blood is necessary to yield the ova.
During the day when we are on beaches that are more protected and bordered by thick foliage, we wear our Bug Shirts primarily to fend off the sand flies. Mosquitoes, usually active after dusk or pre-dawn, are not the primary concern. The hooded shirts, with large swaths of no-see-um netting over the face and on the sides from armpits to the waist for ventilation, do the job well. However, the wildcat drillers show up in the afternoon and by evening make their presence well known.
The most insipid type are large, with shiny black bodies sporting a pair of yellow tiger stripes. They undertake the most daring and aggressive speculating missions. In their quest for red gold, they will alight on the mesh or loose woven fabric of clothing (learn from us, buy tight weave!) and plunge their stingers through to any near lying skin. Their risk of death under a hailstorm of cursing and slapping is high but a hearty few make it. They equip their much smaller, grey and black bodied minions with the intelligence they have gathered and send them in higher numbers to exploit the gaps.
The Dracula Factor on the mosquitoes is lower than the sand flies, only because they attack solo and in much fewer numbers. Speed is not primary among their assets, but the stinger, which can measure more than a quarter of an inch, gives them an unmatched tactical weapon. High intelligence and a large carrying capacity allow them to perch on any remote, hard to slap region and fill up. And when you consider their kamikaze mentality and willingness to deploy chemical weapons of mass destruction (malaria, dengue fever), they are a formidable adversary to good times in the tropics.
"Before doctors cut you open they always tell you that you'll never feel a thing. Then the anesthetic wears off."
Doctor flies are the surreptitious surgeons of the insect world, they inject a local anesthetic and are into you for a few seconds before you notice. The jolt of pain hits you like a little bolt of lightning, and they move just as fast, away in a blink. They sense your intention to slap at the very moment it becomes a cognitive thought in your brain and leave you with the bitter taste of unrealized revenge and a large swollen welt that lasts for hours. Infrequent victories over the aged and infirm among them are celebrated with much gusto and wicked glee. Parading their mutilated corpses around for review by friends is a vain attempt at retribution for damage suffered in hopeless battles against determined and superior guerilla forces.
Doctor flies are easily identifiable but there are few upsides to their menace. Their shape and size is almost identical to that of horseflies in the States. Their coloration however is strikingly different. A light green and brown body is accented by canary yellow wings. It is Mother Nature's attempt at leveling the playing field because they are so quick and intelligent, that if they were camouflaged in earth tones, unless you were standing vigilant guard, you'd never see them attack. In another show of mercy, they don't attack en masse. As a more highly evolved predator they are more efficient and decorative and fortunately less plentiful.
If not for their relatively low numbers and individuality, the Dracula Factor for the Doctor Fly would put them at the head of the class. They attack solo and don't seem to share information with legions of fellow members of the community. They compensate for conspicuous coloration with almost silent flight, high intelligence, speed and a local anesthetic that allows them to initiate penetration without detection. In all my time in Central America so far I have registered less than a dozen kills. They go for fingers, ankles, joints, and when risk of detection is low, juicy bits such as lips and buttocks. I awoke one morning on the beach with a lower lip the size of a golf ball and three knuckles of my hand swollen enough to inhibit flexion of the fingers. Even after detection they have unrivaled speed and reflexes that allow them to escape, and leave you battering only yourself and your pride.
Down here everyone is an expert, or so they'll tell you, and the myriad of concoctions and techniques to foil the insect kingdom would fill a book. They all wither in the shadow of the only sure cure, a shower of %100 DEET, but so will your liver after a few months. The stuff is so volatile it eats plastic and is immediately absorbed through the skin into the blood stream. Yet when under serious attack it is the only option. So, do you choose to sit at the beach bar with rum drinks, cavort with friends and scratch a little or look longingly from across the way as you sip your soda and lime without an itch and alienate all with the stench of Jungle Juice. Not a tough decision really. If you're going to flirt with cirrhosis, might as well have fun. The itch is all in your mind anyway the locals will tell you. But for the less stalwart among us the following are some alternatives which will be presented in anecdotal form.
From Utila Bay Island comes the baby oil glaze technique. I arrived on Utila to find a number of European women walking around with a sheen of oil on their bronzed legs. I remembered girls at college who lubed themselves up and sat in the sun for the maximum tan and a sure fire case of skin cancer by the age of 40. I was sure it was the same thing, that the vanity of 20 year olds will never change, and was about to make a remark when someone enlightened me. It turns out that sand flies love some people and leave others mostly alone, and if you happen to be in the former category even bug spray won't deter them. For you the only solution is a thick layer of baby oil. The sand flies drown in it before they can sting you. The down side is that mosquitoes love baby oil. And I saw some serious chemistry experiments happening with bottles of baby oil and Jungle Juice %100 DEET during my week on the island.
From the Tobacco Range Cayes in Belize comes the diesel spray extermination technique. One of the islands is privately owned and houses a Smithsonian Marine Biology and Ecology Research Station. In a wicked twist of irony, the very people who study the effects of pollution (among other things) on marine environments have sprayed the beach with diesel fuel to kill the sand flies. Apparently they were so bad that no scientists would come to use the facility.
From Mayan communities in the rainforest of southern Belize comes a natural bug juice. Produced from a jungle berry, water and chiles it looks and smells potent. Yet I found it mostly a gimmick and not very effective. I think they make it to sell to tourists and to give to their less tolerant children as a pychosomatic repellent. JP bought a bottle and the welts on his legs looked larger and redder than ever the next day. We wrote off the money spent as a donation in support of indigenous communities.
From experience comes a prevention that is a compromise which allows you to live as normally as possible. Unscented OFF in the family sized spray can is your best bet. It's only %15 DEET, doesn't smell too bad and won't cause liver failure for at least a few years. It deters most of the bugs but is not completely effective and at more than $4.00 it's not cheap. The can proclaims "hours of protection" but hourly reapplication is necessary in areas of high infestation. Two people will go through a can in a few days but it is money well spent. We're saving the more toxic rub-on lotion for the jungle.
Quell the Urge to Itch! Blood Loss, Welts and Treatment
The area around the bite is festering with bacteria left by the dirty buggers. When you scratch it penetrates into the blood stream and the welt swells more, hurts more and lasts longer. Give the bite a big slap with a flat hand instead, it does the job of dispelling the itch and keeps you from swelling too badly.
The ointment game is one that many people play and one that I disdain. Maybe it's a macho thing, but once bitten just grin and bear it I say. The most common anti-itch cult cure is tooth paste. It may take the itch away a bit and I admit to having had success with it but it looks so stupid. As well, most toothpaste has a whitening agent which, no lie, can bleach your skin. I saw a girl who had been bitten badly on her first few days and covered herself in splotches of toothpaste because she couldn't handle the itchy anguish. She happened to be one who is especially sensitive and the welts lasted a couple days, so she reapplied a few times a day for the duration. When I ran into her a few days later she was no longer decorated with Crest but her bronze skin was punctuated with dozens of light khaki colored blemishes. It was a dalmatian pattern in different shades of brown.
Other chemical potions have gimmicky names and packaging and do help to take the edge off but offer little more than a mental salve. We were walking through the REI superstore in Seattle last Summer prior to the expedition and saw little yellow bottles of Sting EZE. With tales spinning in our heads of thick clouds of man-eating bugs in the deepest jungles along our planned route, we loaded up on the stuff. I have used it a few times for wasp and Doctor Fly bites (anything that helps a little goes a long way with those painful ones!) but rarely pull it out. We risk public mockery from the locals who don't need any more fodder for laughing at us soft white gringos.
I've come to the conclusion that down here, having a "tough skin" is both a physical and a mental state. There is much to be said for conditioning and acclimation. Us Norteamericanos are generally sensitive reactionaries with control issues. We don't even consider adjusting our tolerance setting higher, because we get what we want when we want it, Dammit! However, down here climate controlled, pest-free, suburban housing units in temperate climates don't exist and you can extrapolate the rest. You'll see the locals complain about things. You'll see them scratch and swing their arms and legs and direct a few choice expletives at mosquitoes. But in general they live by the credo that a thick skinned outlook on life allows for general satisfaction. Their complaints are mostly a part of their daily prattle with the people they meet rather than real concerns. Insects are just one of those ubiquitous aspects of life in Central America, like rice and beans, heat, rain, corrupt politicians and inflation. Insect bites and their effects on body and mind are an allegory for the unsavory things that pester you every day. If you dwell on them they begin to itch. Once you scratch it's hard to stop and they take longer to go away.
All those who believe that true solutions to big problems are never easy to find, that you can't just pick one up at the local dimestore and get on with things, well, you've obviously never been to Honduras. Down here solutions come in cans. For less than $5.00 any decent market will have what you need. "Salva Vida" means life saver and it also happens to be the name of the beer of choice. On those torpid days when the hehenes, mosquitoes, and doctor flies threatened my sanity I have found asylum from the insects with an oral dose of Salva Vida and a topical application of OFF. Alas if only the remedies for life's true conundrums came in a can.
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