Once I get going on a night’s observations, not much can stop me. The cold doesn’t bother me. I don’t mind the fatigue, the eyestrain, or the strange noises in the night.
But I cannot stand mosquitoes.
My exasperation with mosquitoes comes from my younger days. As a kid in northern Ontario, I’d head out on a dark summer night to sweep the stars of Sagittarius or Scorpius. But in mosquito season, I never lasted long. The critters would attack every inch of exposed skin, flying up my nose and in my eyes and ears, and generally drive me as crazy as a lab rat. Some mornings I’d wake with a face swollen from the toxin of dozens of bug bites.
The astronomer’s scourge
There were potions, of course. A local inventor, J.G. McKirdy if I remember right, concocted a creamy white paste laced with citronella oil that helped a little. But it was greasy and stuck to your skin like like lemon-scented bacon fat. More modern insect repellents with DEET worked a little better, but how healthy can something with the real name N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide actually be for you?
And for us astronomers, there’s another problem with harsh chemical insect repellents… they’re dreadfully bad for your the anti-reflection coatings optics and plastic surfaces of your equipment.
I have seen a few stargazers try screened bug jackets, hoods, and gloves. But these make it hard to handle eyepieces and filters in the dark. Not to mention trying to see fine detail with your telescope while wearing a screened hood on a warm summer night.
Bug zappers? They don’t work well enough. Ultrasonics? Forget it. A bug fogger? Expensive and toxic. Citronella candles? The flame kills your night vision.
But last year, I read an article by Todd Carlson in SkyNews (a Canadian astronomy magazine). He mentioned a new device by a company called Thermacell that was effective in keeping the bugs away, even in the middle of a buggy Canadian summer. I’ve tried the Thermacell, and it works extremely well.
Which is strange because it does seem to do much. It uses a little butane cartridge to generate a tiny flame that heats up a small blue pad soaked in a nearly odorless bug repellent derived from chrysanthemum flowers (yes, really). It’s about the size of a telephone handset. You can hang it off your belt, or lay it on the ground. There are no moving parts, no noise, no batteries required. Yet it keeps an area about 15×15 feet square nearly bug free.
If bugs are keeping you away from stargazing (or otherwise enjoying the outdoors), the Thermacell might be the answer for you. I’m not sure it’s available everywhere in the world, but Google will help you find it.
Now if I can just find a “cloud repellent”, I’ll be ready to go.