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Tick Protection—on Both Sides of the World

Q. I have a phobia of ticks. The little suckers totally freak me out! I've read your amazing posts about the use of Permethrin spray products to create tick-protective clothing, but what would you recommend for the skin? I'm also keen to start a good-sized veggie patch but can't stand the thought of them being on the food I'm going to eat - any ideas?
PS: You have a great following over here!

---Natasha in Australia (specifically the Queensland – Palmwood region)

A. Ticks in Australia?! Yes. I had to look this one up, kats and kittens, but it turns out that ticks exist on every continent but Antarctica. Australia is home to around 75 different species, many of which transmit disease, but with a higher incidence of some conditions (like spotted fevers) that are less common here in the states, and a much lower incidence of others. Confirmed cases of Lyme disease, for instance, are so rare that there's controversy over whether it even exists in Australia.

So: Is tick prevention the same?

Mostly. Ticks everywhere still have the same basic habits. They hang out in moist brushy areas and wait for a host to come close enough for them to hop on and attach. Then they'll move around on the host for a few hours before settling in—and then you still have a few hours before the tick begins exchanging fluids with you.

And if those last few words just made you squirm, you are not alone. I'm with Natasha: "The little suckers freak me out" too!

That's because ticks are the opposite of spiders. Although many people fear spiders—and a good number of people have full blown arachnophobia—spiders are very beneficial creatures that prey on serious pests. (And despite what the urban legends say, human spider bites are rare.) Ticks, however, are the reverse; just plain bad. And they do bite. A lot.

'Luckily', this is the time of year when a lot of people are just beginning to spend more time outdoors, making this the perfect opportunity to review the basic rules of tick protection. Let's begin with Natasha's question about permethrin-based clothing sprays…

First the disclaimer. Permethrin is a synthetic pesticide derived from the botanical insecticide pyrethrum, which is isolated from the crushed petals of a specific group of flowers that have been variously classified as daisies, asters and/or chrysanthemums. Normally we would never recommend use of a synthetic pesticide, but permethrin falls under what I like to call the 'common sense pest control' banner. When used for tick control, it doesn't get sprayed into the environment, onto plants or onto skin. We just use it on our clothing to repel ticks, which are otherwise difficult to control.

Permethrin is tick Kryptonite. When applied to clothing it repels them. If they try and attach themselves to the clothing (or its wearer) anyway, it kills them. When I first learned about it, you had to go to a store that specialized in hunting, fishing and camping supplies, buy the spray in pump or aerosol form and personally spray the clothes you intended to wear out in the garden or the woods.

But I later found a company that sells professionally pre-treated clothing: "Insect Shield". They originally supplied tick-proof uniforms for the military and then branched out into consumer wear. I have several pairs of their treated socks, long-sleeve shirts and pants; and the only time I find a tick attached to me is when I forget to put those clothes on.

Again—there's never a need to put anything on your skin for tick safety; treated clothing is the ideal protection. And even if you don't mind the idea of absorbing chemical toxins into your bloodstream, forget about DEET—that chemical does work to repel mosquitoes, but not ticks.

Oh; and the Insect Shield people can ship their wares to Australia. I called them up and they said that they ship their clothing to every country but Canada.

OK—so wear permethrin treated clothing. What else?

Here in the states (and places like Europe and Canada), mouse and deer control is essential, as those creatures are the primary hosts of the ticks that carry disease. Keeping deer out of your landscape protects both you and your plants.

Mouse control is even more important. Many so-called 'deer ticks' have never seen a deer, but they have all spent part of their cycle life on the white-footed field mouse. Battery-powered electronic mouse traps are a great way to keep American gardens mouse-free without fear of harming creatures like birds with old-fashioned snap traps.

And in Australia?

Its bandicoot control! (I feel like I've been waiting my whole life to say that.)

These marsupials are the size of rabbits, look like rats and are the #1 carriers of ticks in Australia. I would strongly suggest fencing them out of vegetable gardens—again, for protection of the plants as well as people. Same with kangaroos, wallabies and other exotic creatures that seem so amusing to us; they're all potential tick carriers, so critter-proofing goes a long way towards making your landscape safe—wherever in the world you are, and whatever kind of critter you're keeping out.

And—again, wherever you live—keep tall, brushy areas to a minimum. If you have a meadow, don't walk through it without protective clothing and/or a thorough tick check afterwards. Keep the areas you frequent outdoors as dry as possible. Ticks need moisture, so don't crowd your plants; always irrigate at the base of plants; don't wet the leaves; and don't water early in the evening or at night—only in the morning.

Again—good advice for people and plants!

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