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Holiday Gifts for Ticks! (Tick Prevention, That Is...)

Q. Maureen in Downingtown, PA writes: "I remember a show where you extolled the virtues of BTI for mosquito prevention, and I wonder if you have any similar suggestions for control of other pests, specifically deer ticks.

"I recently moved into a ground floor apartment that abuts a heavily wooded area and had an infestation of what the exterminator described as 'flea-like mites' all around the exterior-though I never got their specific name. My neighbors have assured me that deer ticks are also a serious problem, and I have seen deer on my front stoop and by my windows, so I know they're not timid about getting close. I am eager to start a vegetable garden, and I think it's inevitable I'll need to treat for pests. I also want to treat around my door and windows, but I don't want to harm my houseplants, my feline, or myself. Any thoughts?"

A. Yes, Maureen. Even with insidious and potentially deadly and disabling pests like ticks, "treating" (which I assume means spraying) is never the answer. Not sure what your {quote} "flea-like mites" were, but 'flea' plus 'mite' sounds like chiggers, nasty little arachnids that borrow into the skin. Thankfully, they don't transmit disease or even feed when they tunnel into us, but people who have been chiggered report intolerable itching.

Chiggers lurk in little 'islands' of damp brush, so one answer is to cut all unnecessary brush to the ground, which will also help with ticks. Both pests--and many others, including mosquitoes--greatly prefer habitats of tall damp brush. Removing the brush removes their habitat. (Despite what some 'exterminators' may tell you, neither ticks or chiggers will frequent well cut lawns that are not over-watered.)

And neither pest will try to climb in through your windows; that's a flashback to "Night of the Living Dead" and not actual entomology.(Although, keeping to the spirit of the holiday season, I do know of a case where a family brought a number of ticks into their home on a Christmas tree. Just another little something to keep you up at night.)

Both chiggers and ticks attach themselves to you when you walk through damp, brushy areas, like your nearby woods. You can't (or shouldn't) clear cut the woods, so you either stay out of them or wear arachnid-killing clothing.

Some--perhaps many--of you heard the phone call a couple of weeks ago on the show where a listener expressed concern about the potential effects of such clothing on the environment, as the clothing is treated with permethrin, a synthetic form of pyrethrum, one of the oldest 'botanical insecticides', derived from the flowers of the pyrethrin daisy, a type of chrysanthemum. (Yes, on that show I said it was the leaves of the plant during that phone call. It is instead the flower petals. There is an easy explanation for this--I am a dummy!)

Permethrin, being a synthetic form of this botanical, resists degradation from sun, rain and other elements. In fact, the permethrin clothing I wear is guaranteed for 100 washes. There's even a little checkbox inside the waist band you can use to keep track. Being me, I just don't wash my 'tick pants', so they repel Martha Stewart as well as ticks and chiggers.

No, I do NOT like using any kind of synthetic insecticide, but as I said during that phone call, I know too many people whose lives have been devastated by Lyme disease; and one of my dearest friends, Marty Singleton, died from Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever as the direct result of a tick bite, so I choose what my good friend Dr. Bill Quarles calls the "Common Sense Pest Control Option". The permethrin is not spread on my skin, doesn't enter the environment, and is remarkably effective. (This effectiveness was recently reinforced by a journal article showing ticks avoiding permethrin treated cloth or dying when they got too close. Oh, and a recent issue of Consumer Reports found the treated clothing to also effectively repel mosquitoes.)

You can treat your own clothes with sprays from hunting and fishing stores, but then you're exposed to the chemical and it gets on outdoor surfaces near where you spray--a huge no-no if you have cats or a fishpond. (Kitty kats and aquatic life are extremely sensitive to permethrin.) I used to spray my own clothing but switched to the professionally treated stuff decades ago. The company I use is called "Insect Shield"; and a quick search found others offering the same kinds of products and services. (Ready-made clothing or send them your clothes for a professional treatment.)

We move on to "Tick Tubes"; small cardboard tubes stuffed with cotton balls also treated with permethrin. Despite the name 'deer tick', many of the ticks that carry Lyme disease have never seen a deer; but they have all spent time feeding on the white footed field mouse. That makes mouse control essential to keeping ticks out of your landscape, a task that is so close to impossible you can see it without glasses.

Enter the tubes. As anyone who ever left an open box of tissues in an attic or basement knows, mice love to collect soft stuff to line their nests. If they find a cotton ball, you can be sure they'll carry it home; if they found that cotton ball in a Tick Tube, the permethrin-treated cotton will kill any ticks on that mouse, as well as on the mouse's family and any neighbor mice that come in for a visit. And it doesn't even harm the mice; just ticks; and it kills the ticks at the most significant and dangerous stage in their development.

EPA approved, the tubes are available in 33 states as of this writing. (In addition to the feds, each state must approve such products, and Damminex (the company that makes the tubes), has not applied for approval in states where Lyme disease is not an issue.)

Why do I repeat this info now? Because if your friends or relatives are tired of pulling ticks off themselves, a holiday gift of tick-proof clothing or Tick Tubes is going to be much more welcome than yet another sweater.

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