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How to Dine Outdoors, Minus the Bugs

An entomologist’s advice for bug-free backyard barbecues

Giant yellow bugs crawling over a field of picnickers. Photo illustration. Eater
Amy McCarthy is a reporter at, focusing on pop culture, policy and labor, and only the weirdest online trends.

Once the food is prepared, the table is set, and the candles are lit, it’s easy to get in the mood for a great meal. But when you’re dining outdoors, few things can kill that mood as instantly as creepy-crawly (or annoyingly airborne) insect visitors. Bugs are, unfortunately, a natural part of eating outside. They didn’t ask for you to host a picnic next to their nest, but now that you have, you might as well learn how to deal.

The internet is positively bursting with tips, tricks, and hacks to keep your backyard picnic bug-free, ranging from citronella candles and tiki torches to DIY options like apple cider vinegar and essential oils. But many of these hacks are old wives’ tales at best, or marketing gimmicks that aren’t actually effective.

According to University of Nebraska entomologist Kait Chapman, there are three types of bugs you have to worry about at an outdoor meal: bugs that want to bite or sting you, bugs that buzz around and annoy your guests, and bugs that want to eat your food. Different types of bugs mean different mechanisms for coping with them, so we asked Chapman to share her expert tips for keeping your outdoor picnics and backyard barbecues bug-free.

Zap the zapper, snuff out the citronella

Your grandma might have had a backyard bug zapper, which draws insects into its electrified coils with a bright light, but those can perform only after dark. The same goes for citronella candles, which studies have shown to have some repellent effect on mosquitoes but far less than other repellents like DEET. “There are a lot of things out there that promise to repel insects, but they just don’t work,” Chapman says. “Research has shown that ultrasonic devices don’t work, and with bug zappers, you run the risk of killing things that we don’t want to kill, like bees and butterflies and moths.”

Don’t be afraid of DEET

Many people seek out “natural” or “chemical-free” ways to keep insects at bay, but there are few bug repellents more studied — and more effective — than diethyl toluamide, or DEET. For folks who live in hotter, more humid climates, DEET-based bug sprays may very well be the best bet. “If you live in an area where mosquitoes are a big problem, or areas where there’s water, DEET just works,” Chapman says. “We advocate for DEET because mosquitoes can carry diseases. If you follow the guidelines, and use a product with 30 percent DEET or less, the risk to yourself is really minimal.” Obviously, don’t put it on your food, but a bug spray with DEET is perfectly fine for your body.

Air it out

If your patio attracts flying insects like mosquitoes, houseflies, and wasps, the easiest way to keep them away is to simply turn on a fan. According to Chapman, flying insects don’t like the strong breeze that a fan creates. Research also indicates that even if the fan doesn’t fully deter mosquitoes and flies, it could still result in fewer bites, which is a win as far as we’re concerned.

Put a lid on it

When it comes to bugs that want to eat your food, like wasps and ants, it’s best to nip the problem in the bud before it even begins. “You just kind of need to be responsible and keep your food covered when it’s not being eaten,” Chapman says. “If you have trash outdoors, keep it covered so it’s not out there attracting pests.” She also suggests using resealable bottles instead of cans to serve sweet beverages like soda and juice, since wasps and yellow jackets are both drawn to sugar. With these simple techniques, you can avoid common picnic pitfalls and coexist in (relative) harmony with nature — creepy-crawlies and all.