Dining al fresco is one of the best parts of summer. But aside from rain, nothing dampens an outdoor party or entertaining experience like you and your guests being bitten by pesky bugs. Instead of using chemical-laden bug sprays - which not only smell foul, but studies have shown also may have adverse side effects - turn to Mother Nature and use natural remedies, including plants, herbs and essential oils to help keep the insects at bay.

Catnip

Researchers at Iowa State University found the essential oil from catnip, a perennial herb in the mint family, is ten times more effective in repelling mosquitoes than DEET, the chemical found in most commercial bug sprays. The oil is too potent to rub directly on the skin, but can be mixed with other essential oils to dilute. Or, the plant’s leaves can be crushed and rubbed directly onto the skin. Cat owners beware: the herb is known to drive feline friends crazy!

Lavender

Besides having a pleasant scent and naturally calming properties, this pretty purple flower acts as an effective mosquito repellent. It’s great for a home garden or windowsill plant; the flowers and leaves can be rubbed directly onto the skin to help ward off bugs. The essential oil is very strong, and is best diluted with other essential oils.

Citronella

The well-known citronella candle gets its lemony scent and bug repellent potency from this grass-like plant, which can grow up to six feet tall. Not all varieties are as effective; look for Cybopogon nardus or Citronella winterianus plants, and make sure to purchase high quality essential oils from a natural food store.

Lemon Balm

This leafy herb also has a lemony scent, similar to lemon verbena or citronella, and contains high levels of citronellal, which helps repel insects. The herb is easy to grow and its leaves can be crushed and rubbed over the skin. Lemon balm is also said to improve digestion, promote relaxation, and alleviate stress.

Lotus

The lotus plant has also been found to be an effective mosquito and bug repellent (and is also believed to kill mosquito larvae), according to research published in the Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Medicine. Lotus flowers grow in water, making them a nice addition to any backyard with a pond or standing water.

Planting these herbs in an outdoor garden will help fend off insects at dinner parties, but to prepare a natural bug repellent for on-the-go, mix a combination of their essential oils into unscented natural oil, moisturizer, or rubbing alcohol. Organic soy oil or neem oil are also good to use, as they both are natural bug repellents.