Gardening Tips: June 6, 2012

Pests with six and then eight legs
It is 86 degrees outside with the dew point in the high 70s as I write this at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday morning and sweat is dripping off my head. The forecast is for thunderstorms today and if it does rain, it will be the fourth straight Tuesday that has happened. At least the weekends have been dry, much to the delight of the horticulture businesses that depend so much on nice weekend weather. Please patronize our small, local business as much as possible as they struggle to recover from last year’s hurricane damage.

As many of you know, I offer a consulting service to local residents, both seasonal and year round property owners. For a fee of about $100, depending on where I have to drive to, I walk the property, identify all the trees and other plants we encounter and advise about selection, care and maintenance of the home landscape. For forestland I also evaluate suitability for growing ginseng and other agroforestry crops. I enjoy this type of work very much but it does come with some downsides. This spring, the main downside has been the large numbers of deer ticks that I have to remove once I get back home. I usually can feel an adult deer tick crawling on me and I almost always feel it when they bite but this spring I have had to deal with the tiny deer ticks in the nymph stage.

Deer ticks go through three distinct stages of development. Eggs hatch into six-legged larvae, usually in the spring. The tiny larvae do not carry the bacteria, which causes Lyme disease or any of the other nasty diseases these critters can transmit. If the larval tick feeds on a mouse, chipmunk or other animal that does carry the bacteria, the tick will become potentially infectious for the rest of its one- or two-year life. After feeding, the six-legged larvae molt into eight-legged nymphs, which are about the size of poppy seeds, and this is the stage that transmits most cases of Lyme. I certainly cannot feel these pests walking on me, or even if they bite me, so it becomes very important to find them first. It generally takes at least 24 hours of feeding to cause infection but even a fully engorged nymph is hard to see.

Once they attach to your body they will not wash off in the shower, which makes detection and prevention even more crucial. Once the nymph has fed, it molts into a much more visible adult stage with a red colored body that is about the size of a sesame seed. The adults can get quite large as they become engorged (sometimes as large as a small peas) and will appear grey in color.
During the first three weeks of May I went turkey hunting almost every morning and spent a lot of time lying on the ground waiting in ambush or napping. Before I began the season I sprayed my hunting clothes with a tick killer/repellent called permethrin and for three weeks I did not see a single tick on me or on my clothing. Unlike DEET, or other insect repellents, this repellent is sprayed on clothing and is not applied to skin but it lasts for two weeks or more, even if the clothing is washed. DEET and other repellents must be reapplied every few hours to remain effective.

I strongly encourage all of you who garden or spend time in the woods or fields to use this product since deer ticks are now common throughout our region even in the higher elevations of the Catskills. You need to read the label to make sure the active ingredient is “permethrin.”