As the month winds down, there’s still plenty of summer’s high humidity than usual due to an abundance of rain and 90-plus temperatures. That’s music to the tiny little ears of ticks. They are active any time the weather is above freezing, but are really busy between April and September.

Tick 101

When You’re Really Needed

Part of the spider family (arachnids), ticks need blood at four stages of life: egg, larva, nymph, and adult. They’re also looking for a comfy place to stay warm and hydrated. You’ll meet them in woody areas, tall grass, fields, and scrubland.

When You’re Likely to Encounter Them

They’re active pretty much year-round, so you may find yourself with a hitchhiker after time spent outdoors on an above-freezing winter’s day. But they’re more active on humid days, looking to hitch a ride.

Ticks of the Mid-Atlantic

According to the CDC map, 5 of the 7 most common types of tick in the States can be found in (or uncomfortably near) the Mid-Atlantic.

American Dog Tick (dermacentor variabilis) All
Asian Long-horned Tick aka Long-horned/Cattle/Bush Tick DE, MD, NJ, PA, VA
Blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis) All
Brown Dog Tick (Rhipicephalus sanguineus) MD, VA, WDC
Gulf Coast Tick DE, MD, WDC
Lone Star Tick (amblyomma americanum) DE, MD, NJ, NY, PA, VA, WDC, WV
These are the most commonly found, but there are others. Pennsylvania has at least 15 known species.

The CDC website provides photos of each but recommends checking with local resources for specifics. Below is a starting point for each state but don’t forget to check your County website too.

DE Delaware Department of Health and Human Services
MD Home and Garden Center. University of Maryland Extension
NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife. NJ Department of Environmental Protection
NY Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
PA PennState Extension
VA Virginia Department of Health
WDC Washington, DC Department of Health
WV West Virginia Extension Service

How They Operate

It’s actually pretty ingenious how they operate. “Ticks have a sensory organ on their forelegs that detects odors, CO2, and heat. ” says Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, an entomologist at Cornell University.

The organ is called Haller’s organs. It’s a pit with teeny hair-like bristles at the first joint of the arm. Using tall grass and weeds as ladders to position themselves, they spread their arms to sense movement coming towards them. As their transporter brushes pass their ladder, they latch on.

Lonestar tick, arms open, senses a ride coming.

When the Tick Bites

It may be a couple of hours before the tick starts feeding once it’s aboard. When it does start to feed, to ensure a lengthy meal (we’re talking a days), the tick’s saliva has substances to block pain, stop bleeding, and keep a wound from healing.

When it’s finished it’s leisurely meal, it drops off and finds a nice place to prepare for its next stage of life. Depending on where it fed previously, it may leave an unpleasant parting gift. Because of the way it feeds, alternating releasing its saliva with siphoning in blood, ticks can deliver several diseases – Lyme’s being the most familiar – which can have life-long effects.

Tick-proof Your Living Space

Many hikers or outdoor enthusiasts pick up ticks in areas dense with vegetation. But my buddy Dave – a decidedly non-outdoorsy type – came down with Lyme’s from a tick that was most likely brought into his living space – yard or home.

Besides humans, deer, raccoons, birds, snakes, amphibians, and mice (especially the white-legged variety) are used in the tick transportation system.

A lot of tick control is about wildlife management. Here’s what you can do…

Strategies to Protect Your Living Space

Consumer Reports recommends:

  • Keep grass to a 3-inch height. Any shorter will just make it grow faster. Any taller, and it will provide relief from the dry heat that ticks hate.
  • If woody areas adjoin your yard, create a 3-foot mulch moat. This serves as a dry and hot discouragement to ticks interested in checking to see if the grass really is greener…
  • Bag or blow fallen leaves into piles if you’re in an area with a high tick population (check your county/city environmental departments!!)
  • Kill ticks with tinders/blocks/tubes like these from Thermacell
  • Wear repellent to discourage ticks from latching onto you or your pet.
  • Do a full-body check when you’ve spent time outdoors.
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An ingenious way to kill ticks is to have the mice do it…

Current wisdom on all fronts:

  • wear long sleeves when outdoors
  • tuck pant legs into socks/boots
  • shower within 2 hours of coming indoors (ticks may take that long to dig in after hitching a ride on you)
  • keep things (swing sets, lawn furniture, etc.) dry
  • stack wood neatly and avoid keeping piles of old stuff that ticks can hide in
  • discourage deer, strays, and other animals from visiting your yard
  • check your outdoor wandering pets
  • repellent can be applied to your skin, clothes, or lawn

When You Want to Be Repelling

Repellents are thought to interfere with Haller’s organ, says Gangloff-Kaufman. Ticks will do all they can to move away from the offending scent. If you want to take the standard route, the Environmental Protection Agency recommends repellents containing one of these:

  • DEET (synthetic compound)
  • picaridin (plant-derived)
  • IR3535 (plant-derived)
  • Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE) (plant-derived)
  • para-menthane-diol (PMD) (refined organic compound)
  • 2-undecanone (organic compound (rue) which may also be synthetically derived)

Scent Them Away, Naturally

For a different approach, the Farmers Almanac recommends scents that humans generally enjoy but make ticks and other insects really hate.

You may be growing some of these already. If so, you now have a new use for them. Most DIY recipes you’ll find call for essential oils. But then there’s always lemon-scented dish soap.

Sheila’s Insect Repellent

Well, she didn’t invent it, but my sister Sheila recently shared the following recipe that she got from a garden club some years ago.

1/2 c ammonia

3-4 drops lemon dish soap

Mix together in a spray bottle and apply to the yard, fences, and furniture. This can be done the day before an outdoor event and will keep your yard insect-free for a few days.

I was curious to know what there was about lemon Joy dish soap that sends ticks and other insects packing. Turns out it’s really that citrusy scent. But the soap holds the scent on the grass blades longer. And the ammonia, being a great source of nitrogen, feeds the lawn while warding off insects.

Deterring the Transporters

Ticks don’t get far on their own. Without passersby to hitch a ride and have a leisurely meal on, they’ll die. So the other part of repelling ticks is to repel their transporters.

Deer Repellent For some reason, deer dislike Irish Spring bath soap. So, carefully, draw a knife across the bar to get shavings to sprinkle around your fenceline.

Or you might try cutting it into pieces. A friend tied cut pieces with string and hung them to a few branches to protect his fruit trees. And that was the end of the buffet in Marty’s yard!

Mouse Repellent Strong scents like mint and citronella. A convenient mix is Victor M806 Mouse-A-Way Repellent.

Protecting Your Pets

You may be aware that a chemical in commercial flea and tick products, isoxazoline, can cause your pet to have seizures even if they’ve never before experienced them. Read the entire FDA advisory letter for more detail.

But some scents you may want to avoid altogether; a K9 trainer says citrus and mint can damage a dog’s nose. Very concentrated smells (undiluted essential oils) can also be damaging to cats.

When we had pets, I found a great book, Natural Health for Dogs & Cats by Richard Pitcairn, DVM. I think that was my introduction to diatomaceous earth, when looking for a nontoxic flea/tick remedy.

DE is the powdered fossils of diatoms, a type of microalgae. Besides serving as an insecticide, it has medicinal and gardening uses. A mechanical insecticide, DE causes insects to dry out. An interesting recipe here from another holistic vet adds neem and yarrow to the mix.

So as summer enters its final stretch, enjoy being outdoors but be sure you are ticked off.

Have a recipe to share in the keeping your living space and person ticked off? Share in the comments below!


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