It all started with a stranger’s death.
At the time, Carl Hughes was working as a construction supervisor for the oil corporation Chevron in Angola.
A worker came into his office to ask permission to take the afternoon off to bury his daughter, who had died from malaria.
The announcement left Hughes stunned.
While the Waynesville resident has caught malaria a whopping eight times during his years working abroad, he’d always had access to premier medical treatment. For Hughes, malaria was akin to a bad case of the flu.
But others were not so lucky.
For the next few weeks, Hughes racked his brain, trying to come up with a way to help.
“God was thumping on my head,” said Hughes. “I had no idea what to do about it. I knew I needed to do something.”
Hughes began researching insect repellents that could help prevent the deadly mosquito-borne disease. He hoped to formulate an all-natural spray without DEET, despite knowing that those kinds of bug sprays hadn’t found much success.
When Hughes returned to Waynesville for a month-long break, he worked in his garage, toiling to put together a natural bug spray that worked. Hughes went on an all-out mission, devouring all the information he could hunt down on essential oils, their properties, and aromatherapy.
“My wife thought I was nuts,” said Hughes, who had a background in engineering, not chemistry.
The result was Whup-A-Bug, an all-natural insect repellent that has earned national and even worldwide attention.
Hughes hauled cases of the spray back to Africa along with him to hand out for free. A chief in one village told him malaria had been reduced by almost 70 percent as a result of the repellent.
Word of mouth led to higher demand, so Hughes mixed up the solution and sent them to his friends and acquaintances, but never for a profit.
“We weren’t in the business of making insect repellent, we just did it,” said Hughes.
But two years ago, Hughes decided to focus on Whup-A-Bug full-time and quit his job, setting up shop in a Waynesville factory.
Despite the struggles inherent in running a small-business startup targeting a nationwide audience, Hughes has been able to achieve remarkable things.
He’s fought for a U.S. patent for his formula, been knighted by an ancient Christian organization, and recently been contacted by The Discovery Channel for a two-part profile series.
Hughes regularly sends his product to camps for children with blood disorders and other life-ending diseases, like Victory Junction Camp, sponsored by NASCAR.
“For the first time children could go into the woods without fear of getting bitten, on top of their fragile medical condition,” said Hughes.
Hughes occasionally still donates his repellent to villages in Angola, though he says he’s finding it harder to find a messenger who can personally deliver the product.
Based on his research, Hughes discovered there was only one reason why all-natural repellents weren’t working well — greed.
According to Hughes, major companies only put enough essential oils in a product to be able to proclaim that it’s all-natural. The measly amounts are not enough to be effective for long, but they save the company money.
“They always include citronella, but only put 1 percent or 3 percent active ingredients in,” said Hughes. “Our product is 15.3 percent active.”
Hughes said everything he needed for his product to be effective could already be found in nature.
“There are oils that insects will not come close to,” said Hughes. “That’s what’s in this product.”
What was revolutionary about Hughes’ insect repellent is how he formulated it.
Hughes used cedarwood, lemongrass, citronella and rosemary, but was first to figure out how to combine those four oils to their maximum strength, so that one oil doesn’t overpower another.
His unique method has resulted in a patent for Whup-A-Bug after 11 months of fighting for it with the U.S. government. Achieving a patent is a major milestone for an all-natural product, according to Hughes.
Still, the cloud of misleading labels on products hangs over Whup-A-Bug, threatening its success. Hughes would like the public to be better educated on the all-natural labeling that’s sometimes slapped on not-so-natural products.
While the Environmental Protection Agency requires companies to register insect repellents, classified as a pesticide, companies have used a loophole to avoid being registered — and regulated.
Companies can bypass registration if their ingredients are “demonstrably” safe for the intended use.
Hughes said companies often break down essential oils into chemical components and use the cheaper chemicals rather than the essential oils in their product.
Meanwhile, Hughes said he hands over $21,000 each year to the EPA to register his product nationwide.
Hughes said the public simply doesn’t know the difference.
“They don’t know all these games that are being played out there,” said Hughes. “The EPA doesn’t have the manpower or the resources to go after all these people.”
Hughes recently served on a group of small business owners who advised the EPA and Small Business Administration on this particular exemption.
Hughes said it’s hard to compete with other insect repellents lining the shelves at stores, claiming to be all-natural just like Whup-A-Bug. But he is positive that Whup-A-Bug is the better value if the customer considers the amount of active ingredients in each bottle.
“The biggest challenge is getting people to try it,” said Hughes. “Once they try it, cost doesn’t become a factor.”
Hughes hasn’t had the luxury of millions of dollars to launch an advertising campaign nationwide. But distributors from across the country have somehow taken notice of Whup-A-Bug.
“The only reason this product is where it’s at right now is because of word of mouth,” said Hughes. “That tells me it works.”
The company’s equine products have especially taken off, causing distributers of animal care products to beat on Hughes’ door.
Melissa Fischbach, owner of The Baroque Horse Store in Northern California, found Hughes’ product after launching an extensive search for a bug spray that was not only effective but also environmentally safe and non-toxic to sell at her store.
“I found all these qualities in Whup-A-Bug,” said Fischbach. “All of my customers have been impressed by its effectiveness. I’ve had many repeat customers.”
Beyond insect repellent for humans and horses, Hughes has formulated flea and tick sprays for cats and dogs, and sprays for the home.
Hughes says he has formulated 61 products, though many of them still have to go through Federal Drug Administration testing.
Whup-A-Bug spray is also being used in the mess halls and barracks of Fort Rucker in Alabama, according to Hughes. In addition, the poultry industry is testing the product.
“We’re talking to everybody,” said Hughes, who utilizes everything from e-mails to blogs to publicize his product.
Hughes recently inked a deal with Lebermuth, one of the largest natural oil suppliers in the country. The partnership will greatly boost Whup-A-Bug’s ability to supply major distributors across the United States.
Still, all that did not come without hard work and devotion to the product. Hughes said it has been a daily test of survival to keep the business afloat.
Hughes hopes to someday employ about 20 people in Waynesville. For now, he’s working with the help of two other employees.
While investors have previously come knocking on Hughes’ door seeking to invest $5 million and own a 75 percent share, which is normal for most ventures, Hughes refused.
“As bad as I need money, I said no. I won’t sell control,” said Hughes, who believes the first step the investors will take is to dilute the product back to 1 percent and simply use the Whup-A-Bug name to make profits.
The Discovery Channel recently contacted Hughes to include him on a two-part documentary for its Profiles series.
He hesitated to let them film his story, since he was simply not ready to manufacture on a nationwide scale just yet.
Hughes imagined 20 million people phoning Whup-A-Bug, as he stared at two cases of supply on his shelf.
Now that Hughes has a deal with Lebermuth, he’s ready for The Discovery Channel to come into the picture.
Journey to knighthood
Though Hughes has traveled to about 14 countries in his lifetime, Whup-A-Bug has taken him to places he would never have expected.
Last November, Hughes was knighted at St. John’s Cathedral in New York City and accepted into the Knights of Malta, a worldwide organization that started in the year 1081.
Hughes was knighted along with 20 others, including the former president of Okinawa in Japan. Hughes had been nominated for his humanitarian work preventing cases of malaria in African villages.
It was an unbelievable experience steeped in tradition, Hughes said.
He was booked into a hotel right on Broadway, just a few doors down from Carnegie Hall. A limousine picked Hughes and the other initiates up from the hotel and took them to the old cathedral.
“Everything was just totally awe-inspiring,” said Hughes.
“It’s hard to believe that I was even involved.”
All the officials streamed into the church wearing their robes with the symbolic Maltese cross, as a priest asked the group to stand and give an oath of allegiance. They vowed to dedicate their lives to the purpose of God, and help and protect underprivileged people.
One by one, each new member was called up to be knighted with a sword.
“It was so humbling,” said Hughes.
Despite achieving official knighthood status, Hughes says he doesn’t use the title that goes with it.
“My neighbor calls me Sir Carl all the time,” said Hughes. “A lot of people at the church do it, but I don’t use it.”
Whup-A-Bug is sold locally at Ace Hardware Store and Tarheels Guns and Gunsmithing in Waynesville and on the company’s Web site at www.whupabug.com.