By Joan McIntyre, Extension Master Gardener
Why should we care whether we’re harming other insects when we fight ticks?
About 75 percent of food crops (and 90 percent of all flowering plants) depend on insects for pollination, accounting for 35 percent of the plant-based food supply coming from farms. Many animals directly or indirectly rely on insects for food. Insects form the foundation of life on earth, and they are in crisis.
An international team of biologists estimated last year that the abundance of insects had decreased 45 percent in the past 35 years, and a German study showed a 75 percent decline in biomass of flying insects. Dozens of bird species, which feed caterpillars and other insects to their young, have lost more than 50 percent of their populations between 1970 and 2014. These declines have been attributed to habitat loss, agricultural practices, pesticides, and climate change.
The four most common ticks in Virginia are the lone star tick, deer (or blacklegged) tick, American dog tick, and brown dog tick. (The brown dog tick is not known to carry diseases in Virginia.) Most ticks are active April to September, but adult blacklegged ticks are most active in winter, so it’s important to be aware year-round. The appearance of ticks varies depending on their life stage and whether they are male or female.
The following images of ticks are microscope photographs of samples brought into the Extension Master Gardener Help Desk. Click on each image to see a larger version of each tick.
Information on identifying the American dog tick, lone star tick, and deer tick is available from the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Common Ticks of Virginia and Virginia Department of Health’s Preventing Tick-Borne Diseases in Virginia. The Virginia Department of Health also provides minimum disease transmission time, which varies depending on the tick, life stage, and the disease. Checking yourself, your family, and your pets every four to six hours for ticks when outside will prevent most disease transmission.
Spraying pesticides to control ticks is ineffective because ticks reside primarily within leaf litter where the sprays cannot reach them, or they are brought in by animal hosts. The pesticides, however, are nonselective and will kill pollinators and other beneficial insects they come in contact with. There are much more effective ways to protect yourself, your family, and your pets and still enjoy the outdoors.
First, it’s important to understand more about ticks and their behavior.
- Ticks need a blood meal at each stage of their life cycle (larva, nymph, and adult) from hosts like mice, rabbits, deer, birds, dogs, horses, reptiles, and amphibians. Humans are accidental hosts and not preferred.
- Ticks live primarily on the ground in leaf litter and don’t fly or jump. When they’re ready for a blood meal, they wait on grass or shrubs and climb on as a host comes by.
- Not every tick carries disease. Ticks that do carry pathogens can transmit them through feeding, which can take 10 hours or more.
What can you do to protect yourself and your family?
- Keep grass cut, remove leaf litter and brush, and create a mulch barrier between wooded areas and lawn and around patios and play areas.
- Exclude deer and other wildlife with fences.
- Keep to the center of paths when hiking so ticks cannot crawl on you from shrubs and grasses.
- Wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts, and tuck your pants into your socks. Light clothing makes it easier to see ticks (though it doesn’t keep them away).
- Use insect repellents with ingredients such as DEET (25 percent to 30 percent — but do not use on infants or cut skin), Picardin (20 percent), oil of Eucalyptus, and IR-3535 (ingredient in Skin so Soft) to help prevent tick bites.
- Treat clothes and shoes with Permethrin designed for this purpose, and be sure to follow directions carefully.
If you’ve been in an area where ticks are likely, check yourself, your children, and pets at least every four to six hours. Put clothes in a hot dryer for at least 20 minutes to kill ticks (washing them won’t do it). If you find a tick, grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible with tweezers and pull gently upward. Clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol, iodine scrub, or soap and water.
If you want help identifying a tick, take it in a plastic bag or container in alcohol or hand sanitizer to the Extension Master Gardener Help Desk at the Fairlington Community Center (https://arlington.ext.vt.edu). Not every tick or tick bite transmits disease. But if you develop a rash or fever or other unusual symptoms, see your doctor.
More information is available from these resources:
- Ticks. Centers for Disease Control. April 8, 2019
- “Bugs” & Human Health. Virginia Department of Health. 2019.
- Tick Information and Prevention. Alexandria Health Department. 2019.
- Protecting Yourself from Disease Carrying Insects. Arlington Public Health Division. 2019.