Ticks are small (3-5 mm long) blood-sucking arthropods and are divided into two main families: hard ticks and soft ticks, distinguished by ecological and behavioral differences. For example, hard ticks are commonly found in vegetation “questing,” or seeking a host, and are well-recognized by the general public since they often bite pets and people. Soft ticks, however, inhabit caves or animal dwellings and people rarely encounter them.
Hard ticks have four stages to their life cycle: egg, larva, nymph, and adult. A significant characteristic of hard ticks is that they only feed once per stage. Thus, they require a big blood meal every time they feed. This feeding behavior is a crucial trait; ticks will attach and feed on the host for three to twelve days depending on the tick’s stage, which increases their ability to transmit pathogens to their hosts. There are three species particularly important in New Jersey from a public health perspective: deer tick or black-legged tick, lone star tick, and American dog tick. These three species, particularly the deer tick and the lone star tick, bite people frequently and can transmit different human diseases. For example, the deer tick can transmit up to six different diseases including Lyme disease, relapsing fever borreliosis, human babesiosis, human granulocytic anaplasmosis, Powassan encephalitis, and a recently discovered agent of human ehrlichiosis. Ticks can also affect pets since certain diseases like Lyme disease affect a wide range of vertebrates while others have human and animal variants.
The best way to prevent tick-borne diseases is to prevent tick bites. Every spring in New Jersey, there are regular announcements alerting the public on the threats ticks pose and personal tick prevention measures: avoiding wooded or brushy areas, walking in the center of trails, treating clothing and gear with EPA-registered repellents for ticks, wearing long pants and sleeves, using light clothing, and conducting a thorough tick body check after going outdoors. Nonetheless, people often don’t take this advice when they use their yards despite the fact that a large number of tick bites occur in people’s backyards.
The presence of ticks in suburban residential areas depends on factors that contribute to creating a suitable environment for ticks as well as their animal hosts. In general, properties with woodlots or close to dense wood areas are more likely to have ticks. Nonetheless, many other factors affect the likelihood of having ticks in the yard including the presence of tick hosts such as rodents and deer as well as landscape features.
Tick backyard management creates a safe space within your property by modifying vegetation and creating a less suitable environment for ticks. The goal is to create an environment that deters rodents and deer which in turn decreases the survival rate of ticks. Standard practices that help to achieve this include:
1. Mowing grass regularly: Ticks are not commonly found in well-maintained lawns. Ticks are susceptible to desiccation and tend to look for areas with tall grass and shrubs that will provide shade. When the temperature and humidity are optimal, ticks climb vegetation to seek a host.
However, when the temperature rises or they are directly exposed to sunlight, they descend to seek protection under vegetation.
2. Remove leaf litter: Leaf litter provides an optimal environment for immature tick stages to survive and seek a host. Leaf litter offers protection from sunlight and maintains higher levels of humidity.
3. Trim tree branches and shrubs. Despite the fact that a well-maintained lawn is a hostile environment for ticks, branches and shrubs around the lawn perimeter increases potential tick habitat.
4. Minimize the use of ground cover plants. Ground cover plants such as tall grass or leaf litter create a suitable habitat for ticks.
5. Adopt landscape techniques that use gravel pathways or mulch. A three-foot wood chip or gravel border between the lawn and woods may reduce ticks in the yard.
6. Create a rodent-proof habitat in the yard. Immature tick stages (larvae and nymphs) feed on rodents. The presence of rodents increases the chances of having ticks in the yard. There are some simple landscape considerations that can help reduce rodents in the yard and around the house: remove old furniture from the yard, move firewood away from the house, clean and seal stonewalls, remove bird feeders (rodents can access bird feeders and ticks, particularly the immature stages of the deer tick, feed on birds).
7. Create a deer-proof habitat. Use fencing to prevent deer from entering the yard. Fencing can be expensive but more affordable alternatives like using plant species that do not attract deer help. Deer are the last host for the deer tick; areas with a high-density population of deer are typically associated with greater tick populations.