After 3 years, bane to bugs is back

Posted: Monday, June 09, 2003

ANCHORAGE - Customers accused shopowners of hoarding the stuff. Trappers called them unprintable names. Old-time Alaskans moaned their disappointment at the empty store shelves.

All this over an ochre-colored powder with a barnyard smell.

Now Buhach is back after a three-year absence, and merchants throughout the state are hustling to stock their shelves with bright-yellow canisters of the insecticide that has been popular in Alaska for nearly 100 years.

"People would hurt me to get at some," said Gary Lorenzen, a buyer for Samson True Value Hardware in Fairbanks. He's already run out of the 700 canisters he's stocked since April and is doubling his order for the second batch.

So eager are customers to stock up, that Lorenzen has implemented a two-can limit.

"I've had people who wanted to buy four cases - and there are 12 to the case - to take back to the villages," he said.

Merchants say the shortage was the result of a drought in East Africa, whose farmers supply 85 percent of pyrethrum flowers used in the product. But the mystique surrounding the powder generated all kinds of suspicions about its absence, including a story spreading among retailers that warring African nations put an end to the industry.

Buhach is considered an organic pesticide, sprinkled in gardens to eliminate insects, burned in heaps to ward off mosquitoes, and used on lynx and marten pelts to kill fleas, which generally don't bother dogs and cats in Alaska.

Emma Ramoth, who lives in the Northwestern Alaska village of Selawik, said smoldering Buhach is a good way to combat colds and the flu. However, the label, as well as scientific experts, warn against prolonged inhalation of the product.

"When you burn it mosquitoes start falling, so you figure germs can die, too - and it works," Ramoth said. "When you believe something, it works."

The manufacturer - The Buhach Co. based in Mercer Island, Wash. - did not return calls asking how Alaska fared as a customer. But judging by the run on the product, it would appear that Alaskans - particularly in rural areas - are among the most dedicated users.

"People love their Buhach," said Kent Harrington, general manager of V.F. Grace Inc., an Anchorage-based wholesale distributor with clients all over Alaska. "People find something that works and they don't want to change."

Retailers quickly snatched up the first order of 2,400 cans - an amount the distributor believed would last through summer. The second shipment of 1,440 cans also is disappearing quickly, so Harrington just ordered 720 more cans.

"As soon as people heard it was back, they started buying it up," he said. "One reason it's going so well is because we're filling the pipeline back up."

Fans say Buhach is an effective deterrent to Alaska's many bugs. It is lethal to insects but relatively harmless to humans and other warm-blooded mammals, although it can cause skin irritation and itching in some people.

According to the label, Buhach is made up of nearly 1 percent pyrethrins, the generic name for six active compounds derived from the pyrethrum plant, a species of the chrysanthemum plant. The rest of it is powdered pyrethrum flowers, also used in veterinary medicines, food crops and lice shampoo for humans.

But experts caution against breathing it in. So fighting a cold by burning Buhach is a big no no, said Corlene Rose, a pest-management education professional in the Anchorage office of the University of Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service.

"Using any pesticide product counter to the labeled instructions is both illegal and unsafe," Rose said. "I definitely don't advise it."

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has said the higher strength pyrethrum product used by organic farmers may pose some cancer risk. The compound decomposes quickly after being applied, but the EPA recommends more research on the pesticide.

Buhach is expensive compared to synthetic insecticides. But Alaska customers are willing to pay between $10 and $14 for an 8-ounce canister.

John Burns, a Lake Minchumina trapper and fur buyer, swears by the stuff when it comes to getting rid of fleas on lynx and marten pelts. He places a pelt in a bag sprinkled with Buhach and the bugs jump right off.

"Obviously, it's fatal to them," he said.

Since Burns lives in a remote area of Alaska's Interior, he had plenty on hand when the supply dried up. But he was beginning to run low when it appeared again - just in time for mosquito season.

"I was happy. For me, nothing else fills the void," he said. "You don't know how bad it can get until you go out and the mosquitos practically carry you away."

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