Ticks – just the word is enough to give me the shudders. But with Lyme disease rising and tick populations exploding, it pays to be vigilant.
Here’s a quick guide to help you understand ticks and keep them away from your yard.
What are ticks?
Ticks are a type of arachnid and are related to mites. You can recognize ticks by their hard oblong bodies with 8 legs and a head.
Larval stage ticks only have 6 legs, growing the other 2 after consuming blood and molting. Some species are no bigger than a grain of sand, while others may be as big as 5mm after feeding.
They’re external parasites, meaning that they attach themselves to mammals, birds, or even reptiles and amphibians, to drink their blood. Ticks find hosts through sensing breath and body odors, body heat, moisture, or vibrations.
They cannot jump, and they can’t fly. They typically hang off the grass by their back 4 legs while reaching out with their other legs to grasp any passing hosts. This behavior is called questing.
Like mosquitos, they’re carriers of disease. Lyme disease grabs the most headlines these days, but they’re also responsible for typhus, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tick-borne relapsing fever, and more.
The only good news is that not all ticks carry pathogens, and you can avoid illness if you remove the tick within 24 hours.
It’s best to kill it in place with a custom spray or medical wart remover to remove the tick. Some ticks may inject toxins if you squeeze them with tweezers.
Did you know that only 30 – 80% of Lyme disease patients develop a bull’s eye rash? Lyme Disease is misunderstood and difficult to diagnose. If you have unexplained symptoms and think you may have Lyme disease, check out Lyme Disease.org.
When are ticks most active?
The time when ticks are most active depends on where you live. So long as temperatures are above freezing (0 C/45 F) and there’s no snow, ticks can emerge and hunt.
But it’s not until tick nymphs emerge, usually around May, that we enter the height of tick season, which usually lasts until August.
Then, as the daylight hours decrease and temperatures drop, ticks seem to disappear. American dog tick and lone star tick go dormant in the autumn, while black-legged/deer ticks carry on until temperatures drop below freezing before attaching to a host or going dormant.
Where do ticks usually hide?
Ticks need enough moisture in the air for metamorphosis.
The most likely hiding spaces in a yard include:
- Long grass
- Fences and barriers
- Woodland edges
- Play structures in the shade next to woodland edges
- Leaf litter and yard scraps
On humans, ticks hide in hard-to-see, moist areas like:
- In and around the hair and ears
- Under the arms
- Inside the belly button
- Around the waist
- Between the legs
- Back of the knees
- Under the collar
- Under the tail
- Inside the groin area
- Between toes
- Under the front legs
- At the elbows
- Sometimes even on a pet’s eyelids
Here are some simple ways to get rid of ticks in your yard:
How to test if your yard has ticks
ConsumerReports.org has a simple test:
- Cut out a 5-inch square of fabric and attach it to an 18-inch pole or stick.
- Holding onto the pole, drag the fabric through tall grass, weeds, or woodland edges, anywhere you suspect ticks to be hiding.
- Examine the fabric. (As ticks can be tiny, use a magnifying glass.) If you find any ticks, then you’ve got ticks in your yard.
How to protect your yard against ticks
Keep your grass mowed or create a barrier between the long grass
One of the top spots that ticks like to hide is in long grass, especially in shaded areas near bushes and trees. Shorter grass doesn’t give them nearly so much hiding space and exposes them to more light and heat.
You can still grow your lawn up to 4 inches to cut down to 3 inches (which is better for your grass than a short 2 inches), but don’t let it grow longer than that.
But you may also have spots in your yard that you don’t want to mow because you only see that part of the yard when mowing, or because you’re going for a natural area if you have children or pets, fence off the area to keep them from running through.
Move play structures away from woods and into the sun
Keeping play structures pressed up against the woods or hedges may seem like a convenient way to keep it out of the way of the lawnmower, but it makes them tick central.
Move play structures away from the hedges and into the sun. Ticks can’t survive the dry heat and will stay away.
Add mulch barriers around woodland edges
If you have woodland, hedges, or meadow edging your yard, add a 3-foot wide mulch border between your yard and the wild space.
Go for dry wood chips or barks, not the shredded kind. Ticks can’t cross the barrier because it’s dry and hot, and it’ll remind family members to be careful when crossing it.
Clear debris and compost grass and leaves far from the house, if you’re in a high-tick area
It’s unfortunate, but grass clippings and leaves create the moist, shaded environment ticks love.
If you’re in a low-tick area, you’re fine with leaving grass clippings and leaves in place to nourish your lawn. But if you’re in a high-tick area, bag them for a compost pile far from your house.
Discourage mice and deer
You may be tempted to spray pesticides over your yard and call it a day, but hold off. Outside of the health problems pesticides cause you and your household, they also create a false sense of security.
Instead, target mice and deer, both of which harbor Lyme disease-carrying ticks, through two methods:
- Discourage mice and deer from your yard by eliminating mouse habitats, deer fences, or hanging cans or wind chimes to scare off animals.
- Deploy tick tubes, cardboard tubes stuffed with cotton treated with the tick-killing chemical permethrin. When mice collect the cotton for their nests, the permethrin binds to their fur and kills ticks without hurting the mice.
Bonus Tip: Protect yourself from ticks
The best way to keep ticks away when doing yard work is to wear the appropriate attire: a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, socks, and closed-toe shoes. Wear insect-repellent and always give yourself a tick check as soon as you go back inside.