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This 2006 photo made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a female Aedes aegypti mosquito acquiring a blood meal from a human host at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Canadians should stay vigilant about fending off mosquitoes in the coming weeks, health officials said after an Ontario woman's death was linked to the West Nile virus. (James Gathany/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/The Canadian Press/James Gathany/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/The Canadian Press)
This 2006 photo made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a female Aedes aegypti mosquito acquiring a blood meal from a human host at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Canadians should stay vigilant about fending off mosquitoes in the coming weeks, health officials said after an Ontario woman's death was linked to the West Nile virus. (James Gathany/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/The Canadian Press/James Gathany/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/The Canadian Press)

Collected Wisdom

Mosquitos don't discriminate Add to ...

This week, Collected Wisdom starts off with a query that is going to have you just itching to know the answer.

THE QUESTION

Mike Szarka of Oshawa, Ont., wonders how aboriginal peoples protected themselves from biting insects in the summer.

THE ANSWER

“It's important to note that aboriginal peoples in Canada have many different cultures, languages and practices, so what Anishinaabe/Ojibwa from Ontario would do about insect bites is different from what other aboriginal peoples would do,” writes Giles Benaway, an Anishinaabe who is an Ojibway-language educator at the University of Toronto.

That being said, “the easy answer is that we didn't have any special means of preventing insect bites, other than common sense,” he writes. Insects are more active at certain times of day, generally in early dawn and at dusk, he says, “so we scheduled our activities to follow the normal cycle of daylight.”

He notes that certain kinds of insects are attracted to scents, so native people had the advantage of not using soaps or detergents. “We also had natural cures for insect bites, such as the use of raspberry-bush leaves or the application of red-willow-bark compresses.”

Insects bite humans for different reasons, he notes. “Some of them are angered when their natural habitat is invaded, something aboriginal people tend to avoid doing,” and others are attracted by detecting human sweat. “I've heard people say that insects don't bite full-blooded aboriginal people because of genetics, but I can tell you from personal experience that this is not true.”

He adds that insects have a more difficult time biting a person with oily or thicker skin, and people working outdoors tend to develop thicker skin, “so perhaps that also played a part.”

THE QUESTION

Where did the custom originate of placing coins on the eyes of people when they die? Robin Barfoot of Toronto wants to know.

THE ANSWER

There seems to be more than one theory about this.

Cynthia Finkel of Dundas, Ont., says that in ancient Greece and Rome, coins were placed on the eyes of a corpse so that the deceased could pay Charon, the ferryman who transported souls across the river Styx to the world of the dead.

Other accounts, however, say a coin was placed in the mouth of the deceased, not on the eyes.

Meanwhile, the online Encyclopedia of Death and Dying says that in the early 19th century, poor American and British families often prepared the dead for burial in a procedure called “laying-out,” “streeking,” or performing the “last offices.”

“It was ritually important to close the eyes quickly,” it says, “being that they are the first to rigidify in rigor mortis, and it was thought that a corpse with open eyes posed a threat to its kin. As has long been the case in many cultures, they used coins to keep the corpse's eyes closed. The practice of using coins endures, representing a feeling that money, so important in life, may also be important in death.”

HELP WANTED

  • “Is drinking one's own urine, as is often reported in accounts of marooned seamen, helpful, harmful or useless?" David Jeans of St. John's wants to know.
  • Norman J. Ruff of Victoria asks: “Which of my face shaves is ‘greener' – when I use my rechargeable electric razor or using my razor blade (a Mach 3), shaving cream and hot water?"
  • “Eaglets stay in their nests for up to three months,” writes R. Bruce of St. John's. "How do they stay hydrated?"

Send answers and questions to wisdom@globeandmail.com. Please include your name, location and a daytime phone number.

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