How to control tick populations in backyards and green spaces

In recent years, ticks have been getting more attention from residents and public health officials in Indiana. That’s because the presence of ticks in Indiana appears to be growing—along with reports of tick-borne illnesses.

A variety of factors are fueling tick growth in the Midwest, including warmer year-round temperatures, habitat fragmentation, and growing populations of preferred hosts such as mice and deer. The important thing for Hoosiers to recognize is that people can encounter ticks where they live, work, and play.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that people should retreat from their backyards. Understanding the risks of tick exposure and implementing tick management practices around homes and neighborhoods can help minimize the presence of ticks in spaces where people frequently spend time outdoors.

What ticks need to thrive and reproduce

Ticks have long life cycles that can span multiple years and encompass multiple developmental stages—from egg to larvae to nymph to adult. Understanding the conditions ticks need to thrive and reproduce is the first step to controlling their numbers. Generally, ticks prefer:

  • Temperatures that are not too hot nor too cold.
  • Thick leaf litter or moist ground cover
  • Access to blood meal hosts, such as mice, squirrels, chipmunks, birds, deer, or humans.

Reducing one or more of these conditions is likely to have a negative effect on nearby tick populations.

Source: Habitat Network

Practices to discourage ticks in backyards and green spaces

There are multiple strategies that homeowners and green space managers can apply to reduce the risk of tick encounters. Recommended practices:

Keep the grass cut short (1 to 3 inches long) to ensure a tick-resistant environment that dries out quickly and does not hold moisture well.

Remove moisture-trapping leaf litter or move it to areas that are more than two meters away from places frequented by people and pets.

Trim shrubs to allow sunlight to penetrate through foliage and reduce the footprint of dark, damp areas

Create a 3-foot barrier composed of gravel or mulch between tick habitat and lawn to keep ticks at bay and remind people not to enter tick habitat.

Discourage the presence of animals who host ticks by installing a deer fence, eliminating seed waste from bird feeders, and removing invasive species, such as Japanese barberry, Eurasian honeysuckle, multiflora rose.

Source: New York State Integrated Pest Management

Tick-borne illness in Indiana

At least 20 different disease-causing bacteria, viruses, and parasites are known to be transmitted from ticks to people. Depending on the disease, patients can experience symptoms that range from mild infections to chronic illness or death. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 59,349 cases of tick-borne disease were reported in 2017, with Lyme disease accounting for more than 4 out 5 cases.

Though cases of tick-borne illness are relatively rare in Indiana, reports have been growing steadily in the last decade and likely underestimate the scope of the problem.

132 – the average number of Lyme disease cases reported annually in Indiana from 2013 to 2017, more than double the average annual cases for the previous 5-year period

1300 – percent increase in the number of confirmed cases of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in Indiana comparing the most recent 5-year reporting period (2013 to 2017; 232 cases) to the previous 5-year reporting period (2008 to 2012; 17 cases)

180 – cases of ehrlichiosis reported in Indiana from 2013 to 2017, more than five times the number of cases recorded in the previous 5-year reporting period

15 – number of tick species found in Indiana; however, only three tick species—the blacklegged tick, the American dog tick, and the lone star tick—present a danger to humans

274??? – private properties sampled for ticks by researchers from the IU School of Public Health, part of a study into the threats posed by ticks near human habitation

20 – sites in Central and Southern Indiana that are being sampled for ticks over multiple years by researchers from IU’s biology department to better understand tick activity in the state

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Indiana Department of Health

What kind of tick is it?

More than 15 tick species can be found in Indiana, however, only three species present a danger to humans.

Blacklegged tick
  • Transmits: Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, ehrlichiosis, babesiosis, Powassan virus, relapsing fever
  • Things to know: The greatest risk of being bitten is in the spring and summer, however, blacklegged adult ticks can be active any time the temperature is above freezing.
American dog tick
  • Transmits: tularemia, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
  • Things to know: American dog ticks are typically found in areas with little or no tree cover and can survive any given life stage for two years without a host.
Lone star tick
  • Transmits: ehrlichiosis, tularemia, Heartland virus, Bourbon virus, Southern tick-associated rash illness
  • Things to know: Distinguished by the white dot on adult females, the lone star tick has been linked to alpha-gal syndrome, an allergic reaction that occurs in people after eating red meat.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Environmental Health Association

What to do if you find a tick on you

If you find a tick attached to your skin, there’s no need to panic—the key is to remove the tick as soon as possible using fine-tipped tweezers.

  • Using tweezers, grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible.
  • Pull upward with steady, even pressure, trying to avoid twisting or jerking that can cause the mouth-parts to break and remain in the skin.
  • After removing the tick, thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.
  • Dispose of a live tick by putting it in alcohol, placing it in a sealed bag, or flushing it down the toilet.
  • In the weeks following removal, monitor the bite site and tell your doctor immediately if you develop a rash or fever.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Quote: “All Hoosiers need to be aware of the presence of ticks near their homes and neighborhoods and take steps to reduce the risk of exposure.” – Karo Omodior, IU School of Public Health