Wild Ideas: Summer’s celebrations and irritations   

Taking part in summer activities outdoors can be challenging in Virginia, from dealing with high heat and summer deluges to avoiding stinging and biting insects and poison ivy rashes.

Fireworks on a damp Fourth

In Virginia we usually have one of two kinds of weather on the Fourth: clear, hot and sticky — good for fireworks viewing and not much else — or rainy and stickier, which can mean no fireworks. Although this year I couldn’t make it to Rappahannock’s always excellent July Fourth celebration, hosted by the Sperryville Volunteer Fire Department, I did manage to see the fireworks, and also had a chance to share the experience with some other local denizens.

I was planning to watch the fireworks display from the house of friends who were away on vacation and whose cats I was taking care. But after rain fell most of the day, I wasn’t sure there would be a display, so settled into another American summer tradition, watching “Jaws” on the TV, with one of the cats on my lap.

Fortunately, the rain finally relented, leaving the sky layered in clouds and the air heavy with humidity. When the fireworks started, I went out into the yard, which borders a pasture that had not been grazed for a while so was lush with vegetation. For me, the only way to truly enjoy the full visceral experience is to be outside rather that watching the display on TV or even through a window or porch screen.

In what was left of the meager daylight, I saw bats hunting enthusiastically among the thousands of bugs in the meadow that were taking advantage of the break in the showers. One bat came within inches of my head, likely aiming for a bug that was attracted to the light in the house behind me.

Rather than obscuring the fireworks, the clouds actually ended up serving as a reflector above them and as a backdrop behind them. As I stood and watched the fireworks exploding in the sky from the hills to the south, I realized my view was gradually being blocked. As I refocused my gaze to a few yards in front of me, I made out the silhouette of a deer slowly walking through the pasture. The deer, which seemed unaware of my presence, stopped and turned its head to watch the fireworks.

The deer didn’t seem particularly frightened of the explosions of light and sound, perhaps just curious. After a few seconds, it rather perfunctorily flipped up its white flag (signaling potential danger to any other deer that might be in the area) and loped off lazily to the forest edge beyond.

There was something so Rappahannock about this combination of humans celebrating in the midst of wildlife going about its business.

Dealing with summer’s annoyances

Not only can weather be problematic in the summer here in the commonwealth, we Virginians also face other challenges in trying to enjoy the summer, notably biting and stinging insects, and poison ivy. While I love insects because they are fascinating and crucial to our native ecosystems, I still try to avoid attracting the ones that bite or sting. A new Berkeley Wellness quiz offers some suggestions.

While fruit and other sugary foods can attract stinging insects, such as these wasps, so can brightly colored or patterned clothing.
While fruit and other sugary foods can attract stinging insects, such as these wasps, so can brightly colored or patterned clothing. Vitaliy Belomitsev via Wikimedia

Anyone who has ever had a picnic here knows that food, particularly sweets, can attract wasps (such as yellowjackets) and other stinging insects, and most of us know that perfume and other scented skin products can do the same. But did you know that these insects are also attracted to clothing with bright or contrasting colors? Bright colors are likely to attract insects that feed on flowers of the same color, and and some colors can make insects aggressive because they are similar to the color of the insects’ predators.

“Bold, darker colors like red and black resemble natural predators and are likely to cause our little flying friends to become more aggressive towards you,” says the website Colour Lovers. “And if you do get caught in a face-off, they’re probably going to go for high contrast areas like collars and cuffs. Those are the areas that resemble weak spots like the eyes and nose of predators.”

Wasps are more of a problem than honeybees, according to Berkeley Wellness, which are “too busy gathering nectar” to bother stealing food from us.

When it comes to biting insects, some of us are more attractive than others because of the particular chemical combination each of us exudes. “Everyone produces the same chemicals, but in different proportions, which is what may make a person more, or less, appealing,” Berkeley Wellness says. “Plus, different mosquito species are attracted to different chemicals. Some compounds may even conceal us from mosquitoes, and people who produce more of them are naturally better shielded.”

I’m one of those humans that biting insects love, and DEET other synthetic repellents, which Berkeley Wellness recommends, make me sick. Fortunately, I’ve found a few natural alternatives, including oil of lemon eucalyptus, which the website says is “as effective as low concentrations of DEET.” And it smells good to me rather than to the insects.

And then there’s the other bane of summer, poison ivy and the rash it can cause. How do you limit the chance for exposure? According to Berkeley Wellness, you can’t get the rash from touching the rash of someone, because the chemical that causes the rash, urushiol, is already gone by the time the rash appears. But you can get the rash from your dog, which I can vouch for. I’ve learned to be very careful around poison ivy but my dogs have not and can carry in a good dose of urushiol on their fur. You can also get it from gardening tools, clothes, and shoes “for months, even years,” Berkeley Wellness adds.

There’s not a lot we can do about our dogs if we live in poison ivy country, short of keeping it away from the plant entirely or washing the dog every time it comes in, both of which can be problematic. But Berkeley Wellness does suggest steps we can take to protect ourselves when engaging in outdoor activities that could put us in contact with poison ivy: wear gloves and other protective clothing, wash clothes in strong detergent after the activity, and wipe off shoes before entering your home. To learn more about coping with summer’s annoyances, take the quiz.

© 2016 Pam Owen

Snake in the garden

A couple of weeks after I spotted an eastern gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) weaving its way across my yard, Jeffersonton resident and Old Rag Master Naturalists member Peggy Kenney shared a photo of one she found in one of her gardens. It was “one guess as to why the family of five-lined skinks abandoned the rocks in my front garden,” she said.

Jeffersonton resident Peggy Kenney photographed this handsome eastern garter snake in her garden.
Jeffersonton resident Peggy Kenney photographed this handsome eastern garter snake in her garden. Peggy Kenney

According to Fairfax County’s Island Creek Elementary School’s website, gartersnakes have a varied diet, including frogs, toads, salamanders, earthworms, small fish, tadpoles, mice, bird eggs, slugs, crayfish, leeches, insects and small snakes, and they “also eat carrion, and often get run over by cars when they try to eat some small dead animal (such as a frog) off a road.” Lots of other small critters end up on the roads this time of year, so I always slow down where I can and keep my eyes out for them.

Nature events

“Get Your Kids Hiking” in Shenandoah National Park (July 16, 11-noon): The park and the Shenandoah National Park Association host a special program featuring Jeff Alt, renowned author of “Get Your Kids Hiking: How to Start Them Young and Keep It Fun.” For more information, go to Rappahannock News online, or call Tim Taglauer at the park, 540-999-3500, ext. 3488.


Rappahannock butterfly count (July 23) and kids’ count (July 16, 10-11:30): It’s not too late to sign up the sixth annual Rappahannock butterfly count in, hosted by Old Rag Master Naturalists. An optional but recommended training session on butterfly identification is at 1 p.m. this Sunday (July 17) at the Washington fire hall. This year, along with the official count, ORMN is offering a kids’ count this Saturday at Waterpenny Farm in Sperryville. See Jeff Smith’s June 23 article for more information on the counts and training; contact Jane Smith at jssperryville@gmail.com to register for either count and the training.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 335 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”