Managing Ticks in the Landscape
Monitoring for ticks
Do you have ticks in your yard? Where are they?
It is almost impossible to determine where you picked up a tick. They are stealthy. It may be several hours after the tick hitches a ride before it attaches to you. It can take another two hours for the tick to insert its mouthparts. Once attached, ticks inject an anesthetic to prevent you from feeling their bite. It may be days before you discover a tick unless you do a daily tick check
Monitoring is an important part of a tick management program. It can tell you if questing ticks are present and what species are on site. Fortunately, monitoring for ticks is inexpensive and not particularly time-consuming. The most common method of monitoring is to use a tick drag.
How to do a tick drag
- Fasten a one-meter or one-yard square piece of fabric (flannel or corduroy) to a piece of wood.
- Pull this behind you on a string through different areas of your yard.
- As you walk through an area with questing ticks, some will grab onto the fabric thinking it is a passing host.
- Hang the drag cloth on a branch, railing or fence. Examine it for ticks. Use tweezers to grab and place them in a vial of alcohol. This will kill and preserve them for later identification.
- Do your best to not hold the cloth to keep ticks from crawling onto you.
Monitoring will show you if ticks are questing at that time (you should go out on numerous days at different times to see if your results change) and in what locations. Record your results each time. You now have the information needed to develop a management plan.
If you do not find ticks on a drag cloth, it does not mean your yard is tick free. Tick dragging has been shown to pick up approximately 10-15% of the ticks present. You should act as if ticks are present when you are outdoors. Take precautions to protect yourself from tick bites regardless of the outcome of your tick drag.
Ticks can grab onto you while you are doing a tick drag. Be sure to check yourself for ticks while dragging and afterward. When you're done, put your clothes in a hot dryer for 20 minutes, and take a shower.
Scientific Tick Drags
Scientific tick drags are typically done over a given distance or for a certain amount of time. You can decide if this is meaningful for you, or you can sample areas where people spend time in your yard.
Limiting Ticks in Your Yard
Limiting Ticks in your Yard with Habitat Management
Habitat management is one way to reduce the number of ticks in your yard and help you to avoid ticks. These recommendations are especially helpful for reducing encounters with blacklegged ticks, but may be less effective against lone star ticks.
Create Tick-Free Zones
- Make areas of the yard where you and family spend time as open and sunny as possible.
- Prune overhanging branches.
- Keep the lawn mowed to a reasonable height (three inches is ideal for turf health).
- Limit groundcover, and remove leaf litter and other organic debris.
- If possible, swing sets, gazebos, and other yard attractions should be kept away from the wood's edge.
Knowing that blacklegged ticks are most common in wooded areas, borders can be used to set boundaries around areas that people should avoid. For example, a three-foot wide mulch or stone border can be used to teach children not to enter wooded areas. These borders are not designed to kill ticks, but to alter human behavior.
Keep Wildlife at a Distance
Ticks are often moved into an area by their hosts, which range from small mammals such as mice, chipmunks and birds, to large animals including deer. Ticks drop off their host after feeding, so it is possible that ticks can be dropped wherever wildlife roam.
Keeping bird feeders, garbage cans, stacked firewood, and other items that attract wildlife far away from the home may minimize the possibility of ticks being carried into your yard. This recommendation is not based on scientific research, but rather on tick biology and best practices for pest management.
Deer fencing may also reduce the number of ticks on a property, but does not exclude other hosts such as small mammals that can transport ticks.
Tick Management FAQs
While municipalities offer area-wide mosquito management, many do not have comprehensive plans for tick management. Part of the challenge is a lack of evidence that large-scale management is effective. Three large-scale projects are currently underway to address this question (see Do pesticide sprays kill ticks in my yard?). Methods that have been used by municipalities include deer population reduction (An Integrated Approach for Managing White-Tailed Deer in Suburban Environments: The Cornell University Study) and use of the 4-Poster system that treats deer with a tick-killing product (The Effectiveness and Implementation of 4-Poster Deer Self-Treatment Devices for Tick-borne Disease Prevention).While population reduction is often a controversial topic, the 4-Poster device tends to be prohibitively expensive for many communities. As a result, tick management often depends on homeowners, but one study suggests that treating individual properties may not reduce tick encounters or the incidence of disease, despite a reduction in the number of questing ticks on the property (Effectiveness of Residential Acaricides to Prevent Lyme and Other Tick-borne Diseases in Humans). This is probably because tick encounters happen in non-treated locations on the property (e.g., ball chased into the backwoods) or in areas other than the homeowner’s yard.
Tick tubes are a product marketed for tick management made of a cardboard tube filled with permethrin-treated cotton balls. The theory behind these products is that field mice will find the cotton balls and use them as a nesting material. When spending time in the nest, mice expose themselves to the tick-killing products. Although permethrin is available for use as a clothing and gear treatment (see How can I kill ticks on my clothes or gear?), the label does not provide instructions for making tick tubes. Because it is illegal to use a pesticide product in a manner that is not listed on the label, you cannot legally make your own tick tubes at home. (Note: the research on tick tubes has provided inconsistent results, partially due to varying use of the cotton by the mice. Some studies have shown that using tick tubes in a systematic manner on properties of a certain size can reduce the number of ticks on mice. In other cases, however, the use of tick tubes was shown to have no effect on the number of questing ticks.)
The Tick Box Tick Control System is a device that lures field mice and chipmunks inside with non-toxic food bait and treats them with a tick-killing product as they feed. The active ingredient is fipronil, which is found in some spot-on/topical treatments for pets. One short-term study demonstrated that these boxes can reduce the number of questing blacklegged tick nymphs. Several large-scale studies are currently evaluating the use of these boxes over large areas (see Do pesticide sprays kill ticks in my yard?).
Yes. There are a few synthetic pyrethroid insecticides that are effective at killing ticks when applied correctly to areas where ticks are found. However, a 2016 study showed that pesticide sprays applied to a residential property did not reduce the homeowner’s exposure to tick-borne disease, likely because ticks are found in places other than the yard (Effectiveness of Residential Acaricides to Prevent Lyme and Other Tick-borne Diseases in Humans). The study recommended that additional research is needed to examine how tick prevention methods affect human health in terms of tick-borne disease. In response to this study, there are currently three projects examining whether large-scale, or neighborhood-level interventions can reduce tick populations and, importantly, the incidence of disease: The Tick Project, the Backyard Integrated Tick Management Study, and Integrated Tick Management for Suppression of Blacklegged Tick Populations in the Suburban Landscape.