My family recently spent the day at the Blizzard Beach waterpark at Disney World. Although we had a great time (I highly recommend Blizzard Beach over Typhoon Lagoon, by the way), the shady spot we chose to leave our towels and cooler seemed to be attractive for a few horse flies as well. I really wished I’d brought along a small spray bottle of yarrow as my Plan B.
The annoying appearance of these horse flies was surprising to me as Disney World is nothing short of incredible at keeping insects of all kinds away from areas where guests congregate. We’ve never had to use any sort of insect repellent anywhere on the enormous Disney World property in all the years we’ve visited, even for nighttime activities at the woodsy campground.
My husband and I have speculated for a long time on how this is accomplished so effectively because Florida is definitely in the running for insect capital of the world. Given that Disney World was basically constructed on a swamp, this makes the feat even more impressive. No doubt a chemical cocktail of immense proportions is used, but it isn’t near where the people hang out, as I’ve never even smelled the residue of spraying, and I have a pretty good nose for those sorts of things.
For whatever reason, however, this one spot where we were at Blizzard Beach seemed to elude the Disney World bug eradication police. Horse fly bites are extremely painful in my experience, and if you wish to avoid the very effective, but highly neurotoxic effects of insect repellents made with DEET to keep them at bay, I highly recommend an easy homemade tincture of yarrow.
Note that crushing yarrow leaves and stems and rubbing them on yourself does not really work very well (neither does citronella, by the way). The yarrow potency needs to be concentrated via tincture.
Herbalist extraordinaire Susun Weed of the Wise Woman Herbal series of books says that the United States Army studied yarrow and found a tincture of this herb outperforms DEET in repelling ticks and mosquitoes. The one drawback is that it did not remain effective as long, so it needs to be reapplied often. I was unable to find a source for this study, so you will have to try it and see if you agree.
One thing is for sure: avoiding the use of DEET containing insect repellents on yourself and your children no matter what is a wise parenting decision. This stuff is so highly toxic that it isn’t worth it to ever use it in my opinion. It has been known to cause seizures in young children even at low potency. In addition, a review of the scientific literature turns up 17 cases of DEET-induced toxic encephalopathy in children (1).
How Often Yarrow Should be Used to Repel Insects
Ms. Weed suggests spraying yourself with yarrow tincture every 20-30 minutes if the insects are heavy. If not, every couple of hours should be sufficient. Yarrow works for repelling horse flies and other insects that are bothering your horse when you are riding too.
Yarrow Made into a Tincture
The best tinctures are made with freshly picked plants. Buying a commercially prepared tincture from the store made with dried plants is not as potent.
Fortunately, finding fresh yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is not that hard as it is a common plant that grows wild all around the world in temperate regions. It has lovely, long lasting flowers that may be white, yellow, red, or pink. Susun Weed suggests the white or pink yarrow varieties as the best ones to tincture. She recommends picking the flowers, flower buds, seeds, stalk, and leaves from the top third of the plant.
Preparing the yarrow tincture is performed as follows:
- Discard any damaged yarrow plant material
- Do not wash any of the yarrow with the exception of the roots and only with water and if necessary.
- Coarsely chop the yarrow plant parts except the flower and buds.
- Fill a jar to the top with the chopped yarrow. You don’t leave an inch like when you are fermenting food and drinks.
- Pour in 100 proof vodka or vinegar. I would suggest vodka as a better choice because a tincture made with a vinegar base will make you pretty smelly if you spray yourself with it. Also, use potato vodka if there is a gluten sensitivity in your home.
- Cap the jar.
- Label the jar with the date and type of plant used (yarrow).
- The next day, top up the liquid as the level will go down slightly as the plant material absorbs the liquid.
- Leave for a minimum of 6 weeks.
- Strain the tincture into a spray bottle and it is ready to use.
How to Use Dried Yarrow for a Tincture
If you absolutely cannot source fresh yarrow to make this insect repellent tincture, you can use dried yarrow. Just know that it will not be as potent and you will most likely have to respray yourself more often to achieve satisfactory results.
Note that powdered yarrow is not suitable for tincturing. You can only use the dried yarrow root, as the dried flowers, buds, stems, and leaves will not retain enough potency after drying.
Place two ounces of the dried yarrow root in a pint jar. Add 10 ounces of 100 proof vodka.
Cap and label as described above.
Top up with more vodka over the next week as necessary.
Leave for 6 weeks and then strain it for use.
Note that a properly made yarrow tincture is appropriate as a broad spectrum insect repellent, but especially for mosquitoes, ticks, horse flies and deer flies.
Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist
Sources and More Information
Wise Woman Herbal Series
Herbal Adventures with Susun Weed
Herbal Pharmacy: Making a Tincture
Nontoxic Pest Control Ideas that Work
Natural Fire Ant Killer that Works FAST
Fast and Effective Fly Repellent
Attracting and Using Ladybugs for Garden Pest Control
How to Resolve a Flea Infestation Naturally
Quick and Easy Homemade Fly Trap
Spider Repellent Guaranteed to Work
Fast Acting Mosquito Bite Remedy That’s Probably Already in Your Kitchen
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