The Bugs Are Back in Town
It all starts with a tickle around the hairline.
You’re just sitting outside minding your own business, maybe watching your kid shred some turf on the soccer field or basking in the buttery cantaloupe glow of the setting southern sun, when you lazily flap your hand around your head.
It’s not even that hot, just a pleasurable toasting tempered by a light, jasmine-scented breeze. You’re lulled into thinking that this might be the finest place on earth, this coastal paradise where the marsh meets the sea, our own Lowcountry Shangri-la but better, because we have chewy ice.
Then the air slacks as if sucked away by Satan himself and suddenly, you’re surrounded by evil.
A small cloud has materialized from the ether to besiege exposed skin and propel into every orifice, welts appearing as you experience being chewed alive. Unable to detect any individual assailants, the casual hand wave becomes a convulsive dance resembling a drunk Muppet shadowboxing the apocalypse.
Lo, my frenzied compatriots: It’s sand gnat hunting season, and we are the prey. Forget Kierkegaard; in this land of polarized humanity, being assaulted by infinitesimal blood-sucking insects is the great leveler.
Their science name is Ceratopogonidae culicoides, also referred to as “biting midges,” which sounds like a gaggle of mischievous 8 year-old girls in pigtails instead of invisible flesh-eating monsters with bladelike mouthparts. Sure, it’s fun and folksy to call them “no see-ums,” but that won’t make them cute. (Although I admit, sometimes I miss Gnate the Gnat, the reigning mascot at Grayson Stadium before it went bananas.)
Nay, sand gnats may not be vectors of death and suffering like their mosquito cousins, which are at least large enough to reveal themselves and provide tiny bloody trophies when you squish them. But Zika and West Nile plagues aside, sand gnats are indeed the scourge of the South: While filming the sci-fi stinker Gemini Man in Savannah, even former Oscar darling and IMHO possible testosterone replacement abuser Will Smith decried “Georgia, y’all gotta do something about these bugs.”
There are two decent things you can say about these loathsome, vicious creatures: They go away—or back to whatever nefarious dimension they came from—when it gets too hot, which may be the worst argument for climate change I can possibly think of, but I’m sure Buddy Carter will find a way to worm it into a debate.
The other is that they tend to drive away those weak of character and lack commitment to living in the South, which admittedly, has a whole host of other problems besides carnivorous pests. They’re probably what kept real estate prices reasonable around here for so long, until all these New Yorkers figured out that bedbugs are way worse.
There are myriad ways to rid oneself of gnats or at least repel them, including adopting your own bat colony, an environmentally-positive solution that has the added bonus of cultivating a freaky reputation among your neighbors. This option is not portable, however, unless you don’t mind being ostracized as the vampire soccer mom (I mean, who wouldn’t) or run down by Animal Control.
Other than attempting to pass off one of those terribly unstylish hats with built-in fans as fashion, bug spray seems to be our best moveable defense against our mid-spring invaders.
While the EPA insists that DEET-based insect repellent is perfectly safe for humans, I maintain that it smells and feels like toxic snail slime. I’ve tested out every “natural” bug spray I could find over my quarter century of Savannah summers, and most of them were about as effective as slathering on tea tree oil toothpaste, which come to think of it, I actually tried. (I know Avon’s Skin So Soft is many people’s favorite, but I’m sorry y’all, it just makes me smell like a diaper.)
Though I am a total sucker for shiny packaging, I always return to the simply-adorned, locally-produced vanguard known as No Natz. Surely you’ve seen it, ubiquitous as it is in gas stations around Chatham County, nestled between the 5-Hour Energy vials and the Delta-8 gummies. I keep several bottles in my car and around the house and have been known to hand them out as party favors.
Not only does this DEET-free, olive oil-based formula keep the sinister motes at bay, No Natz smells fabulous, the noisome citronella mollified by the sweet scents of lemongrass, rosemary, and geranium. It does need to be reapplied every hour or so, but at least I don’t feel like I need a Silkwood shower when I return indoors.
Upon the first fluttering itch a few weeks ago, I got curious about the genius behind this miraculous product. You may or not be as surprised as I was to learn that this flower-powered concoction was not invented by an Appalachian hippie witch living in a refurbished osprey nest overlooking the marsh.
I found the website and emailed asking for an interview, expecting to tangle with some PR gatekeeper from New York, since isn’t that how most Savannah companies roll these days? When that went unanswered after a few days—I am a persistent little gnat—I called and had the phone handed immediately to David Damino, who seemed baffled by my fawning devotion but agreed to tell me about his little cottage business that’s turned into a moderate-sized insect repellant empire.
A self-described “professional donut eater” who spent 34 years as an officer with the Georgia State Patrol, David had retired to Wilmington Island by 2002. He and his wife were grilling on a friend’s dock when the vexatious chompers descended, and he happened to read the warning label on the bottle of conventional bug spray on hand.
“It kinda scared me,” he recalled in an unmistakably middle Georgia drawl. “I tried some of the botanical ones, but most of them didn’t work, and if they did, you couldn’t stand the smell.”
With no background in chemistry or pest control, he spent the next 11 months developing his recipe, then started bottling it in the garage to give away to friends. A partnership with Islands Ace Hardware and then more Ace franchises blew up production, so he moved the operation east to his ancestral home in Dublin, GA, where he and the extended Damino family still mix and pour hundreds of thousands of bottles a year by hand. Along the way, he added to the line No Mosquitoz, a slightly tweaked, manlier version of the original, redolent of your grandpa’s Old Spice aftershave, though I find the two interchangeable.
David now splits his time between Dublin and his favorite pickleball court on Tybee Island, where he is desperately trying to act like a normal retired person.
“I had no idea that twenty years later, we’d be in 49 states,” chuckled this accidental entrepreneur, adding that it can be stressful to keep up with all the different state compliance rules. “I’m always asking myself, ‘how did we get this far?’”
I didn’t think it was possible, but this unlikely success story made me love No Natz even more. Its non-noxious protective forcefield has also helped soften my attitude towards the biting midges themselves. Turns out, these vile midgets actually serve as an important food source for fish and pollinators, including our friends the bats, and are an essential part of our fragile, precious coastal ecosystem.
So I guess I’ll have to learn to live with the gnats. After all, who am I to say what or who does or doesn’t belong?
But I swear, none of y’all had better bring any bedbugs into this mix.
Bless all the creatures, great and small, except the mosquitos ~ JLL
(*Disclaimer, or lack thereof: I received absolutely no compensation from No Natz to write this, not even a tiny 2 oz. bottle for my fannypack, making me the world’s worst influencer.)