As warmer weather arrives and gardens burst into bloom, something not nearly as nice begins to threaten home gardeners: ticks. And they aren’t merely annoying bloodsucking pests, but they can transmit serious diseases, notably Lyme disease (the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi and similar species) in North America and Western Europe.
There are many species of ticks and most are just annoyances: they bite (painlessly), drink a bit of blood, then drop off with no harm done. A few, though, can carry diseases and can inject them into their host’s blood stream as they feed. The main one to worry about in North America is the deer tick or black-legged tick (Ixodes scapulus) (eastern and central North America) and the western black-legged tick (I. pacificus) (North America west of the Rockies) while their European cousin, the castor bean tick (I. ricinus) is the main culprit on that continent. I’ll just use the term “deer tick” in this article to simplify things.
A Deer Tick’s Life Cycle
Deer ticks require three hosts to complete their life cycle. Females lay their eggs—up to 3,000 of them!—on the ground in the spring. The tiny larvae are born disease-free, but may pick up Lyme disease from their first host: mice and other small rodents, as well as small birds (in North America, they prefer deer mice, Peromyscus spp.). They drop off after feeding.
By late spring and early summer, now nymphs, they can again hook up with mice, but also look for larger prey. that’s when they come into contact with humans and pets. To reach these larger animals, they climb onto medium-sized shrubs and tall grasses. They neither fly nor jump, but wait, legs outstretched, for their prey to brush against them, then latch on. That’s why they are especially common in the transition zone between forest and field … or forest and garden: this is a zone with the mid-size vegetation they require. They also need humid air, so tend to stay in mostly somewhat shady areas. Deer ticks are therefore less of a problem in arid climates.
Again, after feeding, the nymphs drop off, metamorphose into adults, and again climb onto mid-size plants, now in fall or winter, looking for their final host: a larger one, usually deer or livestock, but rarely humans (at this season, we’re too wrapped up in cold weather clothes to be easy to get to).
Deer ticks remain active even in winter, as long as temperatures are above freezing, waiting for that host to pass. Most never do find all three hosts and therefore die, but those that do will feed and mate on this final host and drop to the ground where the cycle begins again.
Ticks and Gardeners
Deer ticks used to be primarily a problem for forestry workers, mushroom and berry hunters, farmers, hunters, hikers, campers and fishing enthusiasts: people going off the beaten path in wilderness areas. They weren’t that common in gardens, but the huge increase in deer populations in both Europe and North America, where population pressure pushes deer into suburban areas, has made them a gardening problem as well.
And their timing is perfect (for them!). When we start getting that urge to get out and garden, nymphal ticks start getting that “I’ve got to draw some blood” urge, so watch out!
Still Largely a Regional Problem
Although ticks are becoming more and more common everywhere, not all of them, not even the aforementioned deer ticks, carry diseases. The incidence can range locally from 0% to 50%. You may easily find a severe problem in one town while the neighboring one has ticks, but no Lyme disease at all! In Canada, deer ticks seem to be moving northward under the influence of climate change, with Lyme disease following several years later.
If there is a serious Lyme disease problem in your area, local media probably cover the subject regularly, so do be alert for their warnings.
Dressing for Gardening
Where ticks are abundant, you can help avoid them while gardening by wearing protective clothing:
- Wear protective clothing (long sleeves, long pants, shoes and socks, even a mosquito head net).
- Get into the habit of using a repellent like DEET, permethrin or picaridin whenever you garden.
- Spray your clothes with permethrin. It has the curious habit of fixing to tissue and will last for two or three months, even after washing.
- Wear light colors (so you can see the ticks before they bite).
- Tuck long pants into socks.
- Wash clothing immediately (ticks can live in dirty clothes for months!). They’ll survive a washing machine, but not a dryer on high heat.
- Use long-sleeve gardening gloves when pruning.
Making Life Unlivable for Deer Ticks
Gardeners who know ticks are a problem in their area can do quite a bit to thwart them. Protect both yourself and all family members, especially children: active as they are, they’re more likely to run into ticks than adults. Here are a few things you can do.
1. Ticks tend to like cool, moist areas, so garden in the sun when possible;
2. Place play areas for children and picnic tables in the sun, not under trees;
3. Remove tick habitat such as piles of leaves, shrubs, stacked firewood and rock piles located near forested areas;
4. Fence deer out of your garden with deer fencing at least 7 feet (2.4 m) high, ideally with its base buried at least another 2 feet (60 cm) deep.
5. And grow plants deer don’t like;
6. Control mice, groundhogs, other rodents, rabbits and hares;
7. Install a tick barrier: a 3-foot (90 cm) band of wood chip or bark mulch between forested areas and the rest of the garden. For some reason, ticks seem reluctant to cross such a barrier.
8. Mow regularly to keep the lawn reasonably short. Ticks are more often found in longer grass.
9. Never feed wild animals;
10. Raise free-range guineafowl or chickens: they love ticks!
Pets and Lyme Disease
Yes, dogs and, to a lesser degree, cats are subject to deer ticks and can suffer from Lyme disease. Symptoms include limping, fever, loss of appetite and lethargy, usually about 2 weeks to 3 months after the bite.
As with humans, a careful inspection when they come come back from a forest romp is important: ticks love them!
Pets are luckier than people, though: there are any number of flea and tick collars, topical and oral products that kill and repel ticks. Consult your veterinarian for advice on the safest, most effective product.
Do a Tick Check
Always do a tick check on yourself and children when you come indoors. Remember, tick bites are painless and therefore easy to ignore.
What are you looking for? Deer ticks are tiny, much smaller than dog ticks, with nymphs (the stage you’re most likely to see) being about the size of a pin head. Hint: you usually don’t have reddish or brown pin heads sticking out of your skin, so look for those.
Remove your clothing and check all over visually as best you can.
Then run your hands over your body: often you’ll feel any you missed.
Then shower and scrub with face cloth and a back scrub. That will in itself likely get any tick you didn’t see.
So, You Found a Tick
If it’s moving about, it hasn’t bitten you yet. Squash it!
If it has, try just brushing it free. If it’s just attached itself, it will come loose. No harm done, since the tick has to be attached for at least 24 hours (and most likely 36 to 48 hours) before injecting any bacteria into your system.
If it doesn’t come off, use fine-tipped tweezers (there are also special tick removing tools you can use) to grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible, below the body, and pull slowly but steadily. Never squeeze the tick: that could cause it to inject its stomach contents, including possibly Lyme disease bacteria, into the blood. Don’t jerk or twist, as that could cause the mouth parts to come off. If ever they do, unless they’re easy to remove, just leave them there. Your body will dispose of them. Trying to remove them by digging into an open wound with tweezers can make things worse.
Place the tick in an empty plastic container and keep it in the refrigerator. It can be useful if you decide to consult a doctor at a later time.
Finally, treat the tiny wound with soap and water or an antiseptic.
If you find a tick that has been on longer than 24 hours, remove it, but see a doctor for possible treatment. .
Remember, you may have been bitten by a tick, but the chances are still very good that it wasn’t infectious. Most aren’t.
A slowly spreading bull’s-eye-shaped rash around a bite from 3 to 30 days of the bite is a sign the Lyme disease bacterium has indeed been injected, so an antibiotic will likely be prescribed, but some 20 to 30% of Lyme disease victims have no immediate symptoms at all.
The average person infected with Lyme disease and not receiving timely treatment only suffers minor flu-like symptoms, but occasionally the disease can be seriously debilitating, with long-lasting effects including neurological disorders, heart palpitations, facial paralysis, arthritis and severe headaches. The sooner you seek treatment, the less likely these are to occur.
I hope I didn’t scare you with this article: Lyme remains a rare disease among gardeners and is not even present in many areas. Still, forewarned isforearmed!