Tick Wars: The Debate Between Organic and Chemical Solutions

Jackson Dodds, right, and Brian Rath use water to demonstrate how they would treat a property in Bridgehampton using their integrated pesticide management tuck. Gavin Menu photo

Jackson Dodds, right, and Brian Rath use water to demonstrate how they would treat a property in Bridgehampton using their integrated pesticide management tuck. Gavin Menu photo

By Christian McLean

There isn’t a cocktail party or backyard barbeque that doesn’t eventually broach the topic of tick control. Tick talk consumes our lives on the East End. From rosemary oil to snipers, everyone has their own theories on how to best rid ourselves of this blight.

The key is a multifaceted attack, working with tick and insect specialists as well as doing what you can on your own. Experts approach the issue with the understanding there is no silver bullet. A common misunderstanding is if you remove the deer from your property you will be in the clear, but it isn’t that simple according to Brian Kelly of East End Ticks & Mosquito Control, because ticks will still come in on rodents: rabbits, mice and voles.

White-footed mice are a reservoir of Lyme disease, according to Rebecca Young, the infection prevention nurse at the Tick-Borne Disease Resource Center at Southampton Hospital. By clearing any leaf piles and stacked wood, you begin to eliminate potential homes for rodents. Also by removing bird feeders you will cut down on food for rodents around your house.

Brian Kelly uses Damminix Tick Tubes which are essentially toilet paper tubes with bait and permethrin treated cotton balls. The mice crawl in, get the pesticide on them and then crawl out. The ticks die and the mice don’t. A more aggressive approach is to install an owl box in the yard. Screech owls eat mice. No mice in the yard, one less thing to carry and infect ticks.

Tick spray can also be effective in keeping the population at bay. There are a variety of sprays on the market but they fall into two categories: chemical and natural. The chemical treatment used by East End Ticks and Jackson Dodds & Company is a permethrin-based spray — the same ingredient in the tick tubes. It is a synthetic chemical modeled after the natural extracts from the chrysanthemum flower. It takes about a half-hour to 45 minutes to dry and then it is considered safe for humans. Each spray lasts from three weeks to a month and in that time it continues to kill ticks that come in contact with the residual chemical. It has a short half-life and breaks down easily so it isn’t usually found in ground water.

According to the EPA, permethrin is “highly toxic to fish and aquatic invertebrates” and should not be used around wetlands and runoff. “The last thing we want to do is destroy an ecosystem to remove an insect,” says Dodds, “We take that very seriously.”

While the spray is not good for fish and clearly not good for ticks it is also toxic to bees, which is a concern as bee populations have dropped over recent years. If you have blooming flowers or other habitats that attract bees, have your insect control professional take that into account when treating your property.

The EPA deems properly applied permethrin is safe for humans, but some homeowners are opting for natural-based treatments. The active ingredient in these sprays is primarily rosemary oil and therefore considered safer. In fact, the EPA doesn’t regulate truly natural tick control. In a test conducted in Maine a minimum-risk treatment with 10% rosemary oil was found to be as effective as bifenthrin, a chemical insecticide. Consensus from tick experts on the East End appears to be that natural treatments are effective, but do not last as long as chemical treatments. These natural sprays need to be applied at a rate of every one or two weeks. Brian Kelly has found they are most effective in villages or low-traffic tick areas.

Dodds has been using a regimen of sprays. Early in the spring a round of permethrin spray takes care of the bulk of the ticks, then he likes to follow up with a natural or organic spray more frequently throughout the season. Both Dodds and Kelly stressed simply spraying the perimeter of the yard with tick control isn’t the answer. There are nuances to spraying. There are areas where ticks are usually more prevalent. If you miss them, you miss the point.

Fighting ticks requires a multi-tiered approach and one that doesn’t stop on Labor Day. Since all properties are different and have different issues (woods, wetlands & wildlife) consult with a tick professional to devise the plan which will work best for your property. In the meantime, keep your lawn mowed, clean up your leaves and always check yourself for ticks before you go to bed.

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