As ticks multiply and spread throughout Maine, people are looking for ways to protect themselves and their loved ones. For many, the battle begins in their own backyard.
In response, an increasing number of lawn care and pest control businesses throughout the state are offering services aimed at lowering tick populations in outdoor living spaces.
“It’s just something we all have to catch up on,” said Ed Mercier, who owns the Bangor-Auburn location of Mosquito Squad, a national company that offers mosquito and tick management services.
For Mercier and other pest management specialists in the state, spring is a busy time.
“Right now we’re seeing a big increase in tick activity just as people are starting to get outside and do their yard work,” Mercier said.
Home tick management is a relatively new concept for many Maine residents. After all, ticks — and specifically deer ticks — didn’t really start to be a problem in the state until the early 2000s, when they migrated up from southern New England and started infecting residents with Lyme disease. Many Mainers grew up rolling around in the grass and bushwhacking through the woods without a thought about these dangerous pests. But now, ticks are here to stay.
There’s no single solution to the tick problem. Options include spraying synthetic pesticides, dousing areas with natural plant-based repellents, erecting fences to keep out animals that carry ticks and removing tick-friendly habitat, such as tall grasses and leaf litter. The methods one uses comes down to personal preference and what will work best for the space you’re trying to protect.
“Many people are averse to using pesticides,” said Griffin Dill, pest management specialist for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “All I can really tell people is you have to weigh the risks of tick-borne diseases versus the risk of pesticides … That’s really a personal decision.”
Dill said the most commonly used synthetic chemical in anti-tick pesticides is bifenthrin, which is a relatively broad spectrum insecticide that kills a whole host of other lawn and garden pests. Other chemicals used in anti-tick pesticides include carbaryl, cyfluthrin, deltamethrin, lambda-cyhalothrin, permethrin and pyrethrin.
“[Pesticides] are certainly an effective aspect of a tick management program, but they’re not a silver bullet,” said Dill. “They won’t eliminate the tick population around a home.”
Dill also cautions that pesticide labels should be strictly followed.
One alternative to synthetic pesticides are natural tick repellents, which include garlic oil and essential oil mixes of rosemary, lemongrass, cedar, peppermint, thyme and geraniol. Multiple scientific studies that support the effectiveness of these natural repellents are listed on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. However, unlike synthetic pesticides, these natural methods are not regulated or tested by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Mosquito Squad offers both options — synthetic and natural tick repellents — and rather than spray the entire outdoor living space, they focus on areas where ticks tend to be more numerous, along the forested edges and in dense vegetation.
While ticks are hardy pests, they do require some shelter from the sun to survive, which is what makes dense vegetation and more shady areas so alluring to them.
In a study by the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, approximately 67 percent of the ticks sampled were found in densely wooded areas, 22 percent were found in unmaintained transitional edge habitats between woodlands and open areas, 9 percent were found in ornamental vegetation, and 2 percent found on lawns. Then, within the lawn, most of the ticks (82 percent) were located within three yards of the lawn perimeter, particularly along woodlands, stonewalls and ornamental plantings. The study also found that ticks were more abundant in the shaded areas of lawns.
“Deer ticks in particular dry out very easily,” Dill explained. “They need relatively humid conditions to survive, so they crawl out of the leaf litter and tall grasses to quest [search for a host] and are exposed to the sun and breeze, then start to dry out, so they have to venture back down into the leaf litter where it’s moist and humid to reabsorb some of that moisture.”
With this is mind, there are a number of additional measures homeowners can take to reduce tick populations in their outdoor living spaces:
— Reduce shade and shelter that ticks need by cutting your grass as short as possible and removing woods piles, leaf litter and debris from your yard.
— Set up playground equipment and other high-traffic areas in sunny locations, away from the edges of the yard.
— Install a 3-foot-wide barrier of gravel or rubber mulch between lawns and wooded areas and around swing sets and sitting areas. This will discourage tick migration.
— Fence in highly used outdoor areas to keep out animals that carry ticks, such as deer.
— Plant deer-resistant plants such as daffodils, lavender, mint, asters and marigolds, some of which also repel deer ticks.
— Place bird feeders in open areas away from the home or consider feeding birds only in the winter. Birds carry ticks, as do mice and other rodents attracted to feeders.
Another method of tick management people have tested out in Maine is keeping free-range chickens and other domesticated fowl, which eat ticks and other lawn pests. Whether this is effective is a matter of debate.
“The jury is kind of out on chickens and guinea fowl,” Dill said. “There are a lot of people who swear by them. Anecdotally, we get a lot of people that say they have chickens and have never had a tick in their yard. And admittedly there hasn’t been a lot of research done on chickens and the use of birds for tick management.”
Chickens do eat ticks, Dill said, but he believes the overall effectiveness of chickens as tick management boils down to the size of the yard and the number of chickens.
“If it’s a decent-sized yard and you have just a few chickens free ranging, I’d say the chance of them playing a significant role [in managing ticks] is pretty slim,” he said.
And at the end of the day, no matter how many tick management tools you deploy, odds are a tick will still sneak past the pesticide barrier or fence or stretch of gravel to shimmy up a blade of grass and wait for you, legs outstretched, in a host-seeking behavior called “questing.” So personal protection against ticks is still extremely important.
“Multiple tick checks every day should be a part of the daily routine,” said Bob Maurais, co-founder and president of Mainely Ticks, a company based in southern Maine that has been managing ticks on residential properties for 14 years.
“One of the best-kept secrets is treating clothing with permethrin spray,” said Maurais, who suggests two ways of doing this: using a can of permethrin spray to treat your clothes based on the instructions or sending your clothing to Insect Shield in North Carolina for a longer-lasting permethrin treatment.
People can also purchase pre-treated clothing, such as dog and human permethrin-infused garments made by Maine company Dog Not Gone.
“You don’t have to be hiking the Appalachian Trail to pick up a tick,” said Maurais. “You can get them right in your backyard.”
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