Many island residents are just itching to tell their most horrible mosquito story.
Whether someone has lived through the mosquito-infested early years on island or moved here more recently, mosquitoes (and mosquito bites) soon surface in the conversation.
Though there are pockets of time these days when mosquitoes seem to be more prevalent – and annoying – years ago, great waves of the pesky insects swarmed the island, killing large animals and making life generally miserable for everyone.
Back in the bygones, residents would fill a small metal bucket with clippings or bark from the smokewood tree, as the smoke would repel the mosquitoes, says Denise Bodden, historic programmes manager for the National Trust of the Cayman Islands.
Jewel Levy recalls that children would walk to school with books in one hand and a smoke pan, as it was called, in the other.
But the really big “ewww factor” comes from knowing that often “cow poop” was burned for the same reason, and worse, that “mosquitoes would fly up into cattle and kill them,” Bodden says.
Levy says cows left outside were dead come daybreak from bites and suffocation.
“Our poor ancestors travelling by canoe, bicycle, donkey or boat did not know when they would be attacked, or when the feeding frenzy would take place,” Levy says. “I remember standing outside one evening with my sister Marilyn just to see the amount of mosquitoes we could capture. After hundreds of bites and hundreds of captured mosquitoes, we gave up the fight.”
Bodden concurs: “Life was pretty miserable.”
Folks had no screens to help keep out mosquitoes, so people confined their activities to the hours between sun-up and sundown, since mosquitoes are most active in the evenings. And as everyone knows, they multiply in the rainy season, as females lay their eggs in standing water, whether a swamp, a puddle or a saucer that accumulates water on your back porch.
So, what’s a human being to do?
“You can swat, slap, duck and run – it doesn’t matter,” says Levy. “‘Skitoes’ track you down and leave you with itchy red welts.”
She advises that a good way to get rid of mosquitoes is to position your hand directly over the top of the mosquito.
“Make sure you have good muscle tone to your upper arms and come down for the kill.”
Also, Bodden reminds that back in the day people covered up more, leaving less skin exposed for hungry mosquitoes.
These days, people are more likely to use citronella candles to keep the insects at bay, as well as various store-bought mosquito repellant products, including eucalyptus oil. Remedies include applying ammonia to the bites, taking antihistamines to calm itching and swelling, or even running hot water over the itchy area. Home Gas now sells an appliance called the Mosquito Magnet that claims to lead to population declines in four weeks.
In recent times, with routine aerial spraying by the Mosquito Research and Control Unit, the problem is greatly alleviated. In other words, there’s not much to complain about when compared to what Cayman forebearers had to endure.
Bodden tells the story of the last Presbyterian missionary on island, Reverend Redpath, who lived at the Mission House in Bodden Town. He contracted malaria and ultimately sold the house (to her great-grandparents, incidentally).
All because of the mosquitoes, apparently.
“Preachers couldn’t even take ‘em,” Bodden says.