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Just hang on a TICK, we may be able to help!


Ticks. Those pesky creatures that every hiker, dog owner, and outdoor enthusiast tries desperately to avoid. A lot of people think that planting more gardens or letting your grass grow higher will attract these little “buggers,” but that is not typically the case.

 

Ticks are small, blood-feeding parasites related to spiders and mites that are capable of carrying and transmitting diseases. In general, ticks tend to be found in forested areas, along the edges where woods and lawn meet, and around stone walls and woodpiles where small mammals live.

 

Adult ticks mostly feed upon white-tailed deer. When done feeding, they drop off and lay their eggs on the forest floor. The following year, the eggs hatch into larvae. Since deer don’t carry the Lyme bacteria, the tick larvae will only get infected and be carriers if they feed on an animal that carries the bacteria, which is most often a white-footed mouse. While tick larvae may also feed on other small mammals like squirrels and opossums, these creatures have much better grooming habits than mice – grooming off and eating most of the ticks who try to feed on them. Because some mammals are so good at grooming, they help keep tick populations under control and reduce the risk of people being bitten.

 

Studies reveal that the greater the diversity of animal species, the fewer the number of ticks, and the less chance of Lyme bacteria spreading to people. Therefore, it can be said that a yard and landscape with more biodiversity means more choices for ticks to feed on, like opossums and squirrels, and also means more predators, such as owls, hawks, snakes, and foxes that help control the mouse population.

 

So what is happening in Western New York, and why are we seeing an uprise in tick populations? Changes in our weather patterns, as well as decreasing habitat and diversity, are influencing tick numbers, the survival of their hosts (deer and mice), and the bacterium that causes the diseases they carry. Not only are the geographic areas in which ticks can survive expanding because of changes in climate, but our milder winters result in more deer and therefore more ticks surviving the cold season.

 

In addition, as development increases and more habitat is chunked up and fragmented, the very animals that tend to be infected with Lyme disease (mice and chipmunks) thrive in these landscapes. Other animals that might control the number of Lyme-infected rodents, like foxes and weasels, are unfortunately, relatively scarce.

 

To compound the issue, some ecologists believe that the coyote is competing with foxes. These scientists have found a rough correlation between high coyote densities in New York state and lower fox numbers, and a higher prevalence of Lyme disease. By displacing foxes, who specialize in hunting rodents, coyotes may have changed the behavior and abundance of rodents – and aided the spread of Lyme.

 

So, together with changes in weather patterns, and an increasing fragmentation of land changing our ecosystem and affecting the populations of predators large and small, we are seeing an increase in the number of ticks and, as a result, more Lyme-infected ticks.


So what can we do in our yards to help? 

  • Replace invasive shrubs. Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii), Honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.), and Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora) create perfect environments for ticks and their hosts and reduce species diversity. Three native substitutions include Northern Bush Honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera), Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa), and Sweet Pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia).

  • Increase biodiversity and habitat structure. Create garden areas with multiple layers of native trees and shrubs that offer food and shelter for a more diverse ecosystem. Increased biodiversity fosters predators like snakes (yes…snakes are good!), owls, hawks, and foxes which can lead to fewer mice, fewer ticks, and less disease.

  • Make a mulch “moat.” Add a 2-foot-wide barrier of dry wood chips or bark on your garden edges. Ticks can’t tolerate this type of dry and hot habitat.

 

Ticks aren’t going anywhere, but the plants in your landscape can definitely influence their numbers and occurrence. Prevention and knowledge are always key when it comes to these “buggers.” Let’s increase the diversity of life in our gardens, create “moat” madness, and make our yards less inviting to ticks!


Article by Carol Markham, Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy Conservationist

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