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How to Outwit Terrible Ticks!

Q. Slater in Williamsport PA ("on the fringes of reception from Penn State's WPSU") writes: "In the past, you have discussed permethrin treated clothing as an effective means of avoiding ticks and the diseases they carry. It works for me; I no longer get 'ticked'. You are a strong promoter of organic methods; and yet your care for people kept you from being a blind ideologue when it came to dangerous ticks. My respect for you only increased. The weather is warming up. Perhaps it's time for a reminder to your listeners?

"PS: As bad as Lyme Disease is, some of the pathogens they carry are even worse. My buddy almost died from a different tick-borne disease right here in Central PA."

A. You are correct. One of my favorite people, Marty Singleton, who was co-chair of the Security Committee (with a gentleman named Hymie Snyder) at the Philadelphia Folk Festival contracted Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever while out target shooting one day. This once-giant gentle bear of a man became unrecognizable during his months-long hospital stay, never recovered and died of the disease.

The CDC has identified eight different specific pathogens and diseases spread by ticks, with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever considered the deadliest and Lyme Disease the best known. I have held bees with stingers in my bare hands, picked up a large snapping turtle by its tail (which makes them go into 'play dead opossum mode'; hopefully) and I view spiders and snakes as my beloved garden protectors. (Turtles too, but who doesn't like turtles?)

And yet, a photo or video of a tick always sends me right into squirmy mode. If they serve a purpose in our ecosystem (we still have one; right?) I'll be darned if I can figure out what it is. Mosquitoes keep many species of songbirds and dragonflies well fed, but ticks? Damn you for being thorough, Noah!

Slater is correct; Permethrin is the #1 answer. Many of the non-chemical botanical alternatives available today are effective against mosquitoes if you cover every exposed area of your body. (Sorry kids, but bracelets don't work.) The notorious chemical DEET is also effective, but instead of slowly dissipating into the air like botanical repellants, DEET is absorbed through your skin and exits your body via your liver and kidneys, perhaps making it the next draft choice for the Roundup award we have named: "But you told us it was safe!". DEET also has no effect on ticks, and may actually attract them.

Permethrin is a synthetic form of the botanical insecticide Pyrethrum, which is made from the dried flowers of a certain species of daisy ("the Pyrethrum Daisy"). This natural form works well but degrades quickly. The synthetic form is designed to remain active despite exposure to air and sunlight and is deadly to ticks in a manner no other compound can approach. Virtually all studies agree that ticks cannot survive on permethrin treated clothing for more than a few minutes. More intriguing studies suggest that the little blood suckers might begin to die when they're less than a foot away.

And yes, I said clothing. Permethrin is meant to be applied to your clothing. You should not apply it directly to your skin; not because it will harm you in any way but because your skin temperature would aerosolize it away. (The air between you and your clothes helps prevent this.)

There are few "100 percents" in gardening, but I have never been bitten while wearing my protective pants, socks and hat (they can drop down on you from trees). But I HAVE been bitten when I was lazy and didn't wear my tick proof clothes.

Many people spray a set or two of their own clothes monthly. The sprays are available at any store with a camping or hunting section, and of course, online. You hang the clothes outdoors, spray all sides thoroughly and let the laundry dry for several hours before wearing. Be sure to purchase sprays that contain ONLY permethrin; DEET is useless against ticks. (But permethrin DOES repel mosquitoes as well.) In an abundance of caution, have a fan blowing the mist away from you while spraying and keep cats out of the area, as they are sensitive to permethrin.

You can also buy clothing that has been professionally treated from several sources, including L. L. Bean and a company known as Insect Shield. The repellency factor of pre-treated clothes lasts much longer than clothes you treat yourself. (Insect Shield claims its treatments last 100 washings!) You can also send some companies your own clothes to be professionally treated.

And I want to thank Slater for his compliment. It was a difficult decision for me to recommend permethrin, as it is not organic. But he's right--I made that choice because I recognize the dangers that ticks present. Also, the material doesn't enter the environment; it stays on your clothes and doesn't get into our food, bodies or soils. This is what the great Bill Quarles, Ph.D calls 'common sense pest control', in which you use the safest materials possible. Thanks again, Slater.

Of course, there are other preventions you can employ. Chickens, ducks, geese and especially guinea hens are alpha predators of ticks. Controlling mice on your property can greatly reduce the number of ticks. And be sure to keep any tall grassy areas on your property as neat as possible; ticks love the moist cover they provide. So don't go strolling through your meadow without protection!

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