Citronella: Why It Works to Repel Flies and How to Use It


Citronella plant

When the weather is nice, there is nothing more enjoyable than having a meal outside, AND, nothing more annoying than having to deal with those pesky little flies landing on and flying around you and your guests! So, what’s a simple method we can use to keep flies away?

Citronella is a great, plant-based, natural insect repellent that is widely used to repel flies and other insects. Whether in plant form, oil form, or in a candle, citronella’s aroma works to mask any other smells that would typically attract flies, making it difficult to find and locate those attractive stinky scents that draw flies in.

There are some great ways to introduce citronella into your outdoor and indoor spaces to help keep flies away! Keep on reading to find out more, and to learn a bit about flies and citronella. 

What is Citronella?

Citronella is an oil that comes from the leaves of Citronella grass, and the Citronella Geranium plant. Often used as a plant-based, natural alternative in keeping bugs away, citronella oil is often added to candles, bug repellents, and sprays as a means to repel bugs. 

Citronella oil is naturally occurring on the perennial plant, citronella grass. The oil on the plant is the essential ingredient used to repel flies and other insects.  

There are a variety of ways that you can introduce citronella into the spaces that need some extra protection from flies and other insects, but first, let’s talk about the types of citronella. 

Types of Citronella Plants 

There are two types of Citronella plants – Citronella Grass and Citronella Geranium. However, when referring to citronella oil and the plant that works best with repelling insects, it is always Citronella Grass.

Citronella Grass is the plant to go to if you’re looking for some in your face, plant-based, insect-be-gone action. The plant itself is a great accent to many gardens and can be easily used as a decorative feature around landscaping while providing the function of keeping insects away.

With its rounded nature, and what can be said to be a clump of grass, the foliage grows long and out and then down, leaving you with this hearty-looking, green delight. However, if you’re planting these babies, there’s a way to get them to their highest potential of insect repel. To do this, crushing and crunching the leaves and agitating the foliage a bit will release the oil. 

Although Citronella Geranium is in the same plant family, it does not do too well with repelling insects. It’s a beautiful, purple-flowering plant to look at, but it will not be as effective as Citronella Grass. 

Does Citronella Get Rid of Flies?

The question we have today is, does citronella actually work in eliminating flies? The answer is yes, but not in the way that you may think. Citronella will not eliminate flies in the sense that the flies go bye-bye forever, BUT, citronella will repel them so that they are eliminated from your spaces. 

The citronella plant or oil does not actually eliminate flies, however, it simply repels them. The lemony smell of the citronella plant is so strong and so aromatic, that it will mask any smells that a fly or other insect may be attracted to, and will, in turn, make it harder to find and locate those stinky smells flies and other insects seem to love. 

Macro shot of a fly's head.

Citronella is fresh-smelling and lemony, and although attractive to us, the smell is very overwhelming to insects and will make it difficult to smell other nearby smells. Although very effective when being used, Citronella candles only work when burning. And the sprays that contain citronella will need to be reapplied to the skin every few hours. 

The citronella scent isn’t necessarily undesired by flies and insects, rather, the aroma is just so strong that it takes over the insect’s senses, and frankly – makes feeding more difficult for them.  No food to eat means no flies to speak!

What Smells are Flies Attractive to?

Flies are attracted to the stinkiest of smells. Seriously, they don’t particularly love any smells that smell good. I am sorry in advance for even saying this –  Think garbage. Think rot. Think dampness. Think food waste. Makes you want to hold your nose, doesn’t it?

Flies just love all the worst smells out there, but honestly, it all comes down to their food source and the type of flies that they are!

What Do Flies Eat?

There are a few very common flies that we all deal with on occasion – House flies, Fruit Flies, and Blow/Bottle Flies, and although similar in regards to loving poignant smells, they all feed on different things. 

House Flies are those annoying flies that get into buildings, hover around people, and land on your food. They tend to eat overripe fruit and veggies, sugary substances, and decomposing excrement.

Fruit Flies are the flies you see around your foods, and they eat fermented foods, like bananas, pineapples, and mostly all fruits that we’d consider going bad, and even things like vinegar or wine, or candy may attract them. You can read more about what attracts fruit flies here.

Bowl/Bottle flies eat the worst of the worst – these are those flies that feed on rotten and decomposed substances, and if you’re wondering how to tell the difference between a housefly or bowl fly – a bowl fly has that metallic sheen to it – chills. 

The gist of it all is that flies basically eat all the things that typically repel humans – but, no matter what the flies’ desired taste might be, all food attracts all flies, AND, nothing masks these smells as well as citronella can. 

How to Use Citronella as a Fly Repellent Outside

To start getting rid of those flies, it’s good to turn to citronella. It’s a natural remedy for a natural cause. I mean we can’t blame those flies for wanting to eat, right? How you use the citronella is key, depending on the situation you have outside.

If flies are a constant problem, planting citronella plants alongside fly-prone spaces is an amazing place to start. However, before planting these grasses, make sure to crunch or rub the leaves of the plant to activate the oils. If you plant the plant as is, you may not grasp all the benefits of the oils – so agitating the greenery a bit is an important step.

If you’re having a BBQ or frequently eating outside, citronella candles and citronella oil is a good inexpensive investment. Citronella candles work wonders when burning because the aroma will become so overwhelming for those insects, making a very natural shield if you will. 

Citronella oil is also a great option to use in a diffuser, or you can dilute the citronella oil and add it into a lotion or a carrier oil like coconut oil, and apply it to your skin! This will help keep flies and insects away from you at all times, and even help lessen mosquito bites!

Always make sure to dilute citronella oil with a carrier oil before applying it to your skin!

The Benefits of Using Citronella to Repel Flies 

There are many benefits to using citronella. Being that it is so widely known and used, it has become a tried and true method in repelling all those unwanted insects. It’s also always very readily available in stores, in candle form, and something you can grab if needed in a pinch!

Citronella is one of most natural and effective ways to deter flies and insects. Whether it’s in plant or oil form, citronella does not contain any chemicals or harsh ingredients. 

In oil form, citronella can be easily added to your lotions or carrier oils to effectively repel insects and flies, and can also be easily used in candles and rub-on products. 

A citronella plant also has its own benefits. It is an easy-growing plant and provides beautiful greenery. It has an amazing aroma for humans, and also will only repel the insects we don’t want around! Any beneficial bugs like bumblebees or pleasant bugs like butterflies will not be affected. 

How to Use Citronella to Keep Flies Away Indoors 

There are also ways that you can use citronella indoors to keep away fruit flies, or those stubborn house flies. Is it just me, or do you feel there is a family of flies that are waiting at your front door with luggage to be welcomed in at all times?

To use citronella indoors, starting with an aromatherapy diffuser is a great idea! Placing the diffuser in fly-prone spots like near the front door, or on a window sill will be effective, and will keep the flies from breaking and entering. 

Citronella plants are also safe to use indoors – and offer great foliage and a great aroma to help fill your home.

If you have pets, please make sure to check in with your veterinarian before using citronella indoors. 

Where Can I Use Citronella?

Citronella can be used pretty much anywhere where you need some protection, and where you are using it, depends on which form will work best. 

Fly in closeup shot

If you are using the citronella plant, planting the grassy plant around a patio, deck, pool, the perimeter of a garden, front porch, in pots as decoration, or basically, anywhere that you will be relaxing, will work. 

If you are using the candle, having the candle placed in the middle of the dining table outdoors, or on a side table – will work best. If indoors, using it on a window sill, or any place where there will be a lot of food or easy access for flies, is the way to go. 

If you are using the oil form, you can purchase citronella oil for torches outside like this FireFly Non-Toxic Citronella Oil!

What Other Smells Will Keep Flies Away?

Besides citronella, many other smells will keep flies away that you can add in addition to citronella. Like we said earlier, flies hate all those amazing smells that we humans love – so let’s start with that.

If you’d like, you can read more about the scents that flies hate here.

Basil

Flies cannot stand basil! Can you imagine? Adding a basil plant in your home, or vegetable garden – will definitely help keep them away. 

Lavender

One of the most relaxing, feel-good aromas, is one of the most hated by flies. I mean they do prefer garbage, so it’s no wonder they’d hate something so light and clean smelling! Adding lavender in essential oil form or in plant form around your outside and inside landscapes will help keep flies and insects away.

Peppermint

A natural stress-relief if you will, mint is a no-go for flies and most insects. Its strong peppermint smell overpowers the insects’ senses, making it something they will surely avoid. If you’re looking for a great peppermint natural spray, try out Wondercide’s Natural Pest Control Spray.

If you’re interested, you can read more about repelling flies with peppermint here.

Cinnamon

Nothing smells better than some cinnamon rolls baking in the oven – but to flies – it’s their worst nightmare. Cinnamon, used in either ground form, oil form, or stick form, can be an easy way to make your house smell great, but it is something that insects and flies will hate!

Oh and on the cinnamon roles, they may come out once the frosting is all set.

Marigolds

Marigolds are a pretty flower with aromas, much hated by insects and flies and even animals like deer. Plant marigolds in your garden for some added decoration, and you will get more than just a beautiful flower – you will now have a functional and purposeful plant in your garden to keep the flies at bay.

Bay Leaves

Speaking of keeping the flies at bay, bay leaves are another smell that is loved by humans and hated by flies. Crumbling some bay leaves and sprinkling them around the perimeter of your garden or home can actually be an effective measure in keeping flies and insects away.

Other Ways to Keep Flies Away

Now we know of the best ways to use aroma to keep those nasty flies away – there are some other things you can also try that will help! 

Keep Your Garbage Tidy

I know this is kind of a gross one, but when you keep your trash actually looking like trash, it will bring flies directly to it. Remember, they love trash. Keeping trash cans closed, using a trash bag rather than throwing garbage directly into the bin, and keeping your filled trash cans in a low-moisture area, will help keep flies and other unwanted pests away.

If you need to keep flies out of your trash, you can read our guide on keeping flies out of your garbage here.

Keep Windows, Doors and Vents Closed

Another helpful tip, especially if you are currently having a fly issue – is to keep those windows, doors, and vents closed, as much as possible. It can be as simple as leaving the door open to carry in some groceries for a minute. Once there is an opening – it’s enough time for a fly-family to break in. 

Use Fans

Believe it or not, having a fan face fly entry-points will actually help keep them away. They don’t like the strong resistant wind and will choose to fly somewhere else. This can be a quick, easy method to try right now – if you’re experiencing flies and know where they are coming from. 

Keep Your Garden Clean

f you have fruit trees, and especially if you have a vegetable garden, it is imperative to keep the areas clean. Make sure to pick up and dispose of any rotting fruits or veggies, or any fruits and veggies that have fallen to the floor – as they will start to decompose and attract flies and other insects. 

Remove Standing Water

Sometimes after a downpour, or for some other various reasons, there may be standing water present in your yard or around your home. Try to prevent this by aerating the soil and your lawns, and if you do see some standing water, try eliminating it as quickly as possible. Insects love standing water and will dive right into it, leaving you with a more tasking job if it doesn’t evaporate on its own. 

That’s a Wrap!

If you’re having a fly problem, it would be best to try a natural method like citronella before any other route. 

Citronella is a plant that looks nice around your landscapes, but has a function, and is a foolproof way to help get rid of flies and any other unwanted insects. 

Whether oil or in plant form, citronella is a tried and true method that has been around for a while and will help you reach your fly-free goals. 

References

“Citronella (Oil of Citronella) (021901) Fact Sheet” https://www3.epa.gov/pesticides/chem_search/reg_actions/registration/fs_PC-021901_01-Nov-99.pdf

Martínez-de la Puente, J., Merino, S., Lobato, E., Rivero-de Aguilar, J., del Cerro, S., & Ruiz-de-Castañeda, R. (2009). Testing the use of a citronella-based repellent as an effective method to reduce the prevalence and abundance of biting flies in avian nests. Parasitology research104(5), 1233-1236.

“House Flies and Other Filth Flies.” House Flies and Other Filth Flies | IDPH, dph.illinois.gov/topics-services/environmental-health-protection/structural-pest-control/house-flies-other-filth-flies. 

“School Pest Solutions.” Maine.Gov, www.maine.gov/dacf/php/integrated_pest_management/school/pest-solutions/documents/me-school-ipm-factsheet_flies_8-15.pdf.

Howlett, F. M. (1915). Chemical reactions of fruit-flies. Bulletin of Entomological Research6(3), 297-305.

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