It’s an inescapable fact of life in Maine these days that, just as the best of spring weather beckons people to the outdoors, ticks are right there waiting for them.
The number of ticks this summer is expected to be in the normal range this year after they exploded last year, according to experts. But that does not make them any less annoying or even dangerous to folks wanting to play and work outside.
And while it may never be possible to completely eliminate ticks from the landscape, there are steps people can take to help control tick populations in backyards or around their property.
Options for dealing with ticks include chemical pesticides, natural repellants, fencing, habitat modification and importing domestic birds known to dine on ticks. One resident is preparing to burn parts of her land to reduce the tick population.
Most common in Maine are the dog tick that gets its name from the fact that it prefers to feed on domestic dogs. This is a different species from the other common and smaller black legged — or deer — tick that carries Lyme disease. Dog ticks are twice the size of deer ticks and can be identified by a reddish-brown shield on its back at the base of the head.
Deer and woodchuck ticks also carry the rare brain infection-causing disease powassan that was the cause of death for a Waldo County resident last month.
“Part of what you do depends on the property,” said Griffin Dill, manager of the University of Maine Tick Lab. “It can be a bit more of a challenge if you are talking about a rural property of 15 acres or more and not a smaller yard.”
On larger properties, Dill recommends identifying areas that get the most use. At the same time, find the areas of good tick habitat: shaded spots with tall grass, a buildup of dead leaves and areas of brush or brush piles.
“General tick awareness is the beginning,” Dill said. “Then monitor for some of the wildlife hosts and if you are seeing deer, mice, chipmunks or other small creatures, there is a good chance ticks are present as well.”
Ticks move around by hitching a ride on birds or mammals and then dropping off once they have sucked their fill of the host’s blood.
Once that information is gathered, it’s time to form a battle plan.
“There is no single, silver bullet that is going to control ticks,” Dill said. “An integrated approach combining multiple strategies is important.”
The most common first step is application of chemical pesticides.
“There are a number of conventional pesticides that work well,” Dill said. “Application can be done by the homeowner or often more effectively by a tick control company that has the equipment like high pressure sprayers that can really get under the grass and leaves to get at the ticks.”
But that can’t be the end of tick management, Dill said. To keep up with things he suggests some sort of tick control device like tick tubes or special rodent bait boxes.
Both are available commercially and work to safely apply a tick-killing chemical that is harmless to the rodent onto its body. Then when a tick tries to bite the rodent, the chemical will kill the parasite. Tick tubes also come with treated cotton that rodents will use as nesting material that also kills ticks.
Dill cautions against taking a do-it-yourself approach to tick tubes or bait boxes as instructions for them call for using chemicals such as permethrin in ways not mentioned on the product labels, thus making it an illegal use.
Tick control also means managing your landscape and how you use it. Since ticks like shaded areas, Dill recommends opening your property up wherever possible to let the sun in and reduce shade. It’s also smart to keep lawns mowed, leaf litter picked up and brush piles hauled off.
Things like picnic tables, swing sets or wading pools should be placed away from any shaded areas. Areas beneath bird feeders should be kept clean of spilled feed that can attract tick-carrying vermin.
There are natural and chemical-free options people use to control ticks, but Dill said the science has shown those are not as effective as synthetic products.
“There has been some evidence that certain essential oil formulations can work,” he said. “Oil from Alaskan yellow cedar has shown some efficacy.”
A combination of rosemary oil and garlic also worked on ticks, but was found to heavily damage plants. When the formulations were redone to be plant safe, they no longer worked on ticks.
“These natural products tend to be much less effective than our established conventional pesticides,” Dill said. “They can play a part in an integrated tick plan, but if you are just going to spray natural ingredients, you are going to have less effects.”
Some research has shown that allowing chickens or guinea fowl to free range on property can help control ticks as the birds do eat them.
Dill said it would take a large flock of birds to keep up with ticks in a space larger than a small backyard.