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Do Sonic Bug Repellents Actually Work?

It's summer, the mosquitos are buzzing and you want relief. Can you really battle bugs with sound, though?

Posted on August 9, 2012, at 4:15 p.m. ET

I live in Northern California, where the whole concept of summer is a cruel joke, but for the past two nights, a persistent buzzing has interrupted my precious sleep: mosquitos.

If only — no, wait, there is an app for that. Many, many apps, all variations on the sonic insect repeller plug-ins that have been on the market and "seen on TV" for years.

Sadly, according to Dr. Roger Gold, professor of entomology at Texas A&M University, the whole industry — which he said was worth over $1 billion — is basically rubbish. "Based on the testing we have done through the years, the claims of repelling insects [with sound] are unfounded," he said. "This is a strictly a buyer-beware situation."

Gold's testing mainly took place in the '90s, when he responded to requests from a number of different regulatory bodies, including the Federal Trade Commission, to take a look at these plug-in devices. (His research goes back even further: Gold debunked repellents in a 1985 Chicago Tribune story.) Gold and his team constructed plywood forts and placed insects inside of them, and then exposed the bugs to "several" different kinds of sonic devices on the marketplace: ultrasonic, subsonic, audible, etc.

None of them did anything to the bugs; some annoyed the younger female lab workers with a high-pitched droning sound. (Did you know that men and woman can hear different pitches? I didn't.) "In order for them to work, the insects have to be set up to perceive sounds," said Gold. But, as different species have different kinds of sensors, even those who may respond to sound waves ("hearing" seems to be a stretch for an insect) develop "habituation." In other words, the way you stop feeling your wristwatch after you've been wearing it for a while, "insects living in the presence of any sound gets used to it."

So where did this wacky notion take hold? According to Gold, the origins of the sonic bug repeller industry are in the military, like a lot of other consumer technology. "The military was interested in whether or not you could put insects in the pathway of the air raid siren and survive." he said. Thanks to the giant blast of energy generated by the sirens, it killed bugs dead. From there, commercial entrepreneurs took the idea and started making devices that used ultrasonic or sub-sonic waves. (No one wants an air raid siren in their living room.) Except that the whole reason the air raid siren worked was the sheer force, force that Gold said could kill a human standing nearby.

With that in mind, I downloaded a free app with several five-star ratings and testimonials, just to see what it did. Gold said that in addition to simply not working, sonic repellents had the potential to annoy pets. Anti Mosquito has three levels: 14k, 16k, 20k. It wasn't just inaudible to me, it was inaudible to my cats, who were completely bored by my perambulations around their nap-chair. Gold said that it was a combination of good marketing and wishful thinking that kept this bogus business alive, there's no such thing as a silver bullet for insects: "You know how real estate agents say 'location, location, location'? It's sanitation, sanitation, sanitation."

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.