On a trail near Pepperdine University in California, Thomas Mather, director of the University of Rhode Island’s TickEncounter, once saw a dark brown stripe in the dried, tall grasses lining both sides of the trail he was on: billions of ticks were clustered within a zone of just ten inches. The ticks had figured out where to wait for their next meal.
Ticks are passive parasites. They dwell around trail edges, perching on the tips of grass. When an unsuspecting person passes by, they latch on and can go unnoticed for hours or days—enough time to transmit disease.
These unwanted hitchhikers are expected in the wilderness, but nowadays, they’re closer than you think. Ticks could be in your neighborhood, or in your own backyard.
How to eliminate tick habitats
To mitigate these unseen foes in your yard, first determine the conditions that ticks are likely to be found in.
TickEncounter.com reports that “Deer ticks usually are not out in the middle of your lawn, but they thrive where yards border wooded areas, ornamental plantings and gardens, or anywhere it is shaded and there are leaves with high humidity. American dog ticks don’t mind more sunny areas, even your patio [or] deck. And lone star ticks are prone to wander from shade to sun and back again.”
Start with getting rid of habitats that are conducive for ticks to live in. “Leaf litter for deer ticks, unmanaged grass for American dog ticks...they're in different habitats due to their type of preferred hosts,” says Mather.
Remove leaf litter, woodpiles, and brush in the yard. Additionally, trim low hanging branches, overgrown plants, and tall grass. Then, separate your yard from nearby wooded areas by creating borders with landscaping materials like wood chips or gravel.
Insecticides and essential oils
Administering perimeter treatments is another method for tick control. Experts point to applying either granule or liquid insecticide around the perimeter of your yard and in shady areas. Look for active ingredients such as permethrin or bifenthrin.
TickEncounter.com reports that “Perimeter spray treatments are eco-friendly by limiting the amount of pesticide being applied, and targeting the areas where people most frequently come into contact with deer ticks. The chemicals used today for tick control are much less toxic than in the past, and are used in very low concentrations.”
Additionally, the site notes that bifenthrin and permethrin don't leach through soil, potentially contaminating groundwater. These chemicals are degraded by soil microorganisms, like fungi and bacteria within the top 4 centimeters of the soil surface.
If pesticides aren’t for you, there are also natural alternatives such as diatomaceous earth, a powder made of fossilized microalgae that will dehydrate ticks and kill them in a few hours. Spread it wherever you see tick activity, or use it on your yard perimeters.
Another unexpected natural remedy is using essential oils. Despite their pleasing aroma, eucalyptus and neem oil can be used to kill ticks.
“To use these essential oils to get rid of ticks, combine four ounces of purified water into a spray bottle, along with 30 drops of your carrier oil of choice. Shake well and spray anywhere you want to kill ticks,” notes Smith’s Pest Management.
Though insecticides and natural remedies may deter ticks, they can also end up in your yard via host animals like deer and mice. To keep your yard less hospitable for animals, install a deer fence, grow plants that deer avoid such as chives or daffodils, or use deer repellants.
To prevent mice, place “tick tubes” around the yard. When mice take the permethrin-treated cotton from the tube for their nests, it kills the ticks feeding on them. The CDC also recommends stacking wood neatly and in a dry area to discourage rodents.
Why are we encountering more ticks?
The migration of ticks from vegetated areas such as forests and grasslands to our backyards can be traced to land use changes like forests broken into fragments and suburban development.
As humans encroach on wild spaces, nature’s ecological balance is disrupted. Tick “host” animals such as white footed mice, chipmunks, and white tailed deer start to dominate certain patches of forest. Because there are more hosts available, a tick has a higher chance of feeding on these disease-carrying mammals. When these mammals start showing up near our homes, they bring ticks with them, which is when the threat truly manifests.
“Because white tailed deer increasingly are living and even thriving in populated urban or suburban areas, it allows for a high rate of tick reproduction. Places like Staten Island, NY, are completely infested with ticks—and almost all subsist in at least one life stage on deer,” says Mather.
Because neighborhoods transect these once-wild forests, ticks and humans can encounter each other more easily.
Though it is debated, some experts say that climate change is also a factor in tick numbers increasing.
“Climate change can contribute to an earlier and longer tick season, giving humans a higher chance of encountering a tick and acquiring a disease agent,” says Saravanan Thangamani, director of the SUNY Center for Vector-Borne Diseases.
Mather, however, maintains that an increase in deer populations has been a primary driver in spreading ticks.