Lynne Warren, advanced Master Gardener, Goodwin Volunteer
Let’s talk about Deer Ticks, Ixodes scapularis, (aka blacklegged ticks) the tiny blood-sucking parasites that can ruin a good night’s sleep when you subconsciously scratch and find that bulbous body attached to yours. If you’re like me, you’ll get it off as quickly as possible and regret that you didn’t use the tick key and now have part of the tick stuck in your skin. Then, you’ll spend an hour trying to dig it out, clean it up and wonder where you put the antibiotic cream. Sleep is now impossible because where there’s one, there has to be more and do I now have Lyme? What time does the pharmacy open?? Has your skin started to crawl just thinking about them?
Deer ticks can live in wooded areas, tall brush/grass, under leaves, under plants, around stone walls or piles of wood (basically anywhere small mammals or birds live). They thrive in moist environments. Deer ticks have a two-year life cycle and will eat three times, once at each stage of development: larvae (early summer), nymph (June/early July) and adult (early spring/late fall) Adult populations tend to peak in Apri/May and late October.
What can you do to reduce your risk? I’ll give you my approach.
The first thing I do every year is treat my pants, baseball hat, and shoes with permethrin. It’s available at hardware stores, big box stores, and online. Permethrin kills ticks and mites and will last through a few washes. (I will typically hang pants in the sun after wearing and dust them off to make the most of the treatment.) Most ticks will come from the ground or plants up to waist height, not from overhead. I personally will not wear khaki in the forest since I think it makes me look like a host animal (deer in particular). So, I buy dark brown, green pants or gray pants - I can still spot the ticks if they crawl on them but feel they give me camouflage. (not a scientific fact but based on my own experience). You need to plan ahead as the chemical needs to dry before wearing. I do not typically use any man-made chemicals but given the choice between Lyme disease or chemical, Permethrin will win every time.
The next task is to do a tick drag. I take a light colored sheet and drag it through areas I’m going to work. On a “good” day, I’ll catch many ticks. (In scientific experiments tick dragging only managed to pick up 10-15% of the ticks present. So, an empty sheet doesn’t mean there aren’t any ticks.) If I catch some, I’ll pick them off the fabric and put them in a sealed plastic bag to dry out. Heat (130°+) and dessication kill them. They do not drown. If you want to squish them, use rocks, never your hands.
Mulching 3 feet between the woods and your yard will help keep your lawn tick-free. It creates a hot, dry area ticks won’t like. Encouraging predators: ants, dragonflies, bugs, beetles, centipedes and spiders are the largest tick eating group. Oppossums, birds, frogs, toads, mice and shrews will also eat them. I know raking up leaves can help control the tick population but so many beneficial insects rely on them, I will not.
Eradicate Japanese Barberry. This invasive shrub has dense foliage that allows the plant to retain high humidity (ticks need moist environments). Barberry also creates a nesting habitat for the white-footed mice which are the primary source of larval ticks’ first meal. It outcompetes our native plants (which help support the predators that eat the ticks) and is one of the first shrubs to green up in the spring.
My approach to getting rid of barberry is to cut off it’s food (sun). I wait until the canopy starts to fill in (late spring). By then, the barberry will have used a fair amount of energy to leaf out. I’ll take loppers or a chain saw and cut it to the ground then PILE the cuttings on top of the crown. I may have to repeat this for larger shrubs but the goal is to never let it bloom and never let it see the light of day again.
At the end of the day, do a full-body tick check. I may still find one in the middle of the night but it’s most likely because one of my pets decided to share.
If you have any questions, please share in the comments!