Q. I have an abundance of ticks this year, and as much as I'd hate to, I'm tempted to use Sevin granules as a yard-wide insecticide. Is there a safer alternative? Thanks!
- ---James in Stafford, VA
But I do agree that this looks to be a bad tick year. So let's review some prevention strategies. As with human health conditions, it's a lot easier to prevent tick problems than to have to try and deal with them after somebody says: "Hey—what's that in your ear?" A lot of the information that follows comes from data collected by the BIRC—The Bio-Integral Resource Center—for the "Special Pathogen Issue" of their excellent journal, "Common Sense Pest Control." You'll find more info on this fine organization and their publications at www.BIRC.org.
#1: Pay attention to timing and location. The risk of picking up a tick is worst in the morning and late afternoon; they don't like to 'hunt' in the heat of the day. They also prefer Southern exposures, being uphill, and areas where brush meets grasslands.
#2: Rake up, shred and compost your fall leaves. Infected nymphs—the nasty 'little ticks' that are hardest to detect—love to live in leaf litter. In a study conducted in New York State over a three-year span, cleaning up leaves reduced tick numbers by 48 to 87 %.
#3: When camping, use a 'tick drag' to clear the area before you set up or sit down. This does not mean dressing up like Carmen Miranda to lure ticks with a soft spot for show tunes to their doom. A tick drag is a sheet of heavy white flannel with weights on one end and a handle for pulling. Drag it across grassy brush (or your lawn if you just can't believe its not as tick infested as those Ortho ads insist) and most of the ticks in the area will hop on. Normally used to determine infestation levels, they temporarily reduce the number of ticks in the dragged area by an impressive 70%. Drop the ticks (or the entire drag) into soapy water to kill them.
#4: Let the sunshine in. Pruning trees in the winter to increase the amount of sunlight that gets through in the summer will help your plants and keep tick numbers low, as they prefer the high humidity of damp shady areas. (Don't prune in late summer or fall; it would greatly stress the trees.)
#5: Water wisely. We've been begging people for years to avoid excessive, frequent watering for the good of their plants. Here's another reason: Areas allowed to dry out between waterings are much less attractive to ticks.
#6: Keep brush and grassy areas near your landscape mowed—even if the land isn't technically yours. In one study, mowing reduced the number of ticks by 70%.
#7: Discourage rodents and other small mammals. Yes, deer DO carry ticks, and it's always a good idea to keep deer out of your landscape. But ticks don't become infected from them; and many disease-carrying ticks never meet a deer. Most ticks do spend lots of time on mice and voles; and it's those creatures that pass on the organisms that allow the ticks to transmit nasty conditions like Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Voles and mice love the protection from predators that a heavy layer of wood, bark or root mulch affords; another reason not to use the stuff near your house. Use compost as a mulch instead; it prevents weeds, feeds your plants, and vermin don't care for it. Here's lots more info about using compost as mulch from a previous Question of the Week.
#8: Keep bird feeders away from the house. Birds can carry ticks; and spilled seed attracts lots of potentially tick-carrying vermin.
#9: Spread Damminix Tick Tubes at the outskirts of your property. These are simple cardboard tubes filled with cotton balls soaked in permethrin, a synthetic form of the botanical insecticide pyrethrum, made from chrysanthemum flowers. Mice take the cotton balls back to their nests to use as bedding (its irresistible to them!) and the permethrin kills the ticks on any mice who come and go out of those nests all season. Yes, permethrin is a synthetic pesticide, but you're not spraying it into the environment (it doesn't even hurt the mice!), and ticks are tough pests. You'll find more info at www.ticktubes.com.
#10: Consider wearing dedicated shirts, pants and socks sprayed with tick repellant when you're in the garden and woods. Available in hunting and fishing stores, these sprays contain a scant one half of one percent (.5%) permethrin, the same chemical used in the Tick Tubes. No, I don't otherwise endorse synthetic chemicals of any kind, but these sprays are highly effective, use a minute concentration of active ingredient, you spray them on your clothes not your skin, and it's the safest way I know of to deter these tough pests. (I personally use the sprays and Tick Tubes, and the only time I find a tick on myself is when I've been tardy about breaking those two things out for the season.) Don't rely on products containing DEET to protect you from ticks. DEET is absorbed through your skin, and isn't nearly as effective against ticks as permethrin sprays. Note: These clothing sprays are also effective against mosquitoes (and chiggers, etc., etc.) so you should never be tempted to slather the nerve toxin DEET on your skin again.
You'll find .5% (one half of one percent) permethrin pump-spray and aerosol repellant products from Coulston, Sawyer and Repel in stores that sell camping and hunting supplies; brand names include "Duranon" and "Permanone." Warning: Some other products sold by these companies under very similar names are stronger and/or contain other chemicals (like nasty DEET), so don't stray! You ONLY want .5% clothing sprays.