Tick Talk – 18 Myths About Ticks Debunked

Robert Pavlis

I was cruising the internet and found a few myths about ticks so I decided to do a blog post about them. Then I did more search and found a lot more misinformation about ticks. Funny how quickly people make up stuff and how easily it is spread by the powerful internet.

Ticks can be a concern. Lyme disease is real. But a lot of what you’ve heard is bunk!

Tick Talk - Myths About Ticks Debunked
Tick Talk – Myths About Ticks Debunked, source: Griffin Dill

Some Tick Biology

Ticks are often mistaken for insects, but they are actually small arachnids (like spiders and scorpions) and are related to mites. Ninety species are found in North America with 900 worldwide. Ticks are split into two groups: hard and soft. Hard ticks grow in bushy and weedy areas and use vertebrate hosts like mammals, lizards, ground-dwelling birds and YOU. These are the guys we need to worry about.

Soft ticks vs hard ticks, hard ticks have visible mouth parts which look a bit like a head
Soft ticks vs hard ticks, hard ticks have visible mouth parts which look a bit like a head, source: Igenex

Ticks start life as an egg which hatches into a baby six-legged tick called a larva. The life cycle of the deer tick is common for ticks found in North America and they go through a three-host cycle. The larva finds a suitable host in year one. In fall it leaves the host, molts into a eight-legged nymph and overwinters on its own. In spring it finds another host and feeds on it for a few weeks, leaves the host and then turns into an adult. The adult then moves on to a third host in fall. Its second winter is spent alone only to lay eggs in spring.

Life cycle of the deer tick
Life cycle of the deer tick, source: University of Maine

Ticks don’t jump or fly. Many will sit on the tips of vegetation and wait for the host to come by, a behavior known as “questing”. When a host gets close enough they grab hold for a ride. Some ticks, like the lone-star tick are more aggressive and will travel several feet to find a host. Carbon dioxide, body heat and vibrations signal the presence of a host.

Soil Science for Gardeners book by Robert Pavlis

Once on a host, they can feed for several days, before dropping off.

Myth #1: Ticks Are Mostly Found In Forests

Ticks are commonly found in forests but their numbers are growing in urban areas and are now quite common in backyard gardens. The warmth from cities is also extending the season in which they are active.

Myth #2: Use Soap, Vaseline Or Burning To Remove A Tick

Don’t cover the tick with things like soap or Vaseline. With all such home remedies the tick stays attached longer and can inject more infected saliva while you wait for it to die.

Some people suggest burning it off with a match but that is also a bad idea. You are more likely to harm yourself or your pet.

The best way to remove a tick is with tweezers, garbing the tick as close to the skin as possible, and gently pulling it off. Put the tick in a sealable plastic bag or container such as a pill bottle. Record the date and location you visited, as well as the part of your body where you found it. If you develop symptoms, take the tick along with you to your doctor.

Myth #3: A Partial Tickectomy Can Still Cause Disease

Removing the body of a tick may leave the head or mouthparts attached to the skin. These will no longer transmit disease and your body will slowly expel them as new skin develops.

Myth #4: Only Female Ticks Feed On Blood

This is not true. A tick needs a blood feast between each stage of its life. Male and female larva need a feed to become nymphs, and both sexes need another feed to become adults. Male adults may not feed again but sometimes they do to get some extra energy.

Garden Fundamentals Facebook Group

Myth #5: All Ticks Spread Lyme Disease

First of all, only some ticks are infected with a disease of any type, but more importantly, not all tick species can transmit Lyme disease (Lyme borreliosis). In North America Lyme disease is transmitted mainly by the Blacklegged tick (sometimes called the deer tick), Ixodes scapularis, and the Western blacklegged tick, Ixodes pacificus.

Other species can transmit other diseases such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Ehrlichiosis.

What percent of ticks carry Lyme disease?

That depends on where you live. Do the ticks in your area carry lime disease? “A recent study found that in the Northeast and Upper Midwest, up to 50 percent of blacklegged ticks are infected. But in the South and West, infection rates are usually less than 10 percent.”

Myth #6: Infection From Ticks Happens Quickly

Infection is actually quite slow. In the case of Lyme disease, the infected tick needs to attach itself and feed for more than 24 hours before the bacteria is transmitted. Removal of ticks soon after each trip outside should prevent you from getting the disease.

This review of current literature, for Lyme disease concluded that, “there is no evidence of transmission by a single infected nymph within the first 24 h of attachment. By 48 h after attachment of a single infected nymph, the probability of transmission to result in host infection appears to be approximately 10%, increasing to reach 50% by 63–67 h, 70% by 72 h, and >90% for a complete feed. ” Other bacterial infections also seem to be transmitted slowly, but virus infections can happen quickly.

Myth #7: Ticks Fall From Trees And Land On You

Ticks don’t jump, fly or fall from trees. You have to come into close contact with the tick for it to find you.

Tick that is questing - waiting to catch you with its front claws
Tick that is questing – waiting to catch you with its front claws, source: Charles B Beard et al

Myth #8: Ticks Cannot Survive Winter

Ticks can over winter in the leaf litter on the ground. They may even become active during a warm spell in winter (anything above 4C or 39F).

Myth #9: Deer Are The Cause Of Lyme Disease

One of the ticks responsible for spreading Lyme disease is the deer tick, and the deer is a host for them, but the deer is not a host for Lyme disease. The bacteria that causes this disease does not live inside deer or humans. The mouse is a host for Lyme disease bacteria.

Myth #10: You Can Feel A Tick Bite

You might feel the bite of a tick, or you might not. Their saliva contains several compounds that trick our bodies into blocking pain and itching, as well as stopping any defensive immune responses.

Myth #11: Lyme Disease Always Comes With A Bullseye Rash

Bullseye rash as a result of contracting Lyme disease
Bullseye rash as a result of contracting Lyme disease, source: CDC

A Lyme disease infection can cause a round reddish mark called a bullseye rash, but it only appears in about 70%- 80% of cases. The best way to determine the disease is with a lab test and even that produces a lot of false positives.

According to the CDC, a bullseye rash is a sure sign of Lyme disease and treatment should be started right away. A lab test is not needed.

Myth #12: Possums Eat Tons Of Ticks

Both possum and opossum (the preferred scientific term) correctly refer to the Virginia opossum found in North America.

Many normally reliable sources of information report that possums eat a lot of ticks. They are “tick vacuums” with each one consuming 5,000 ticks a season. A new study suggests it’s all a myth.

Earlier research showed that captive possums eat an average of 5500 larval ticks per week and these findings probably account for this common idea about possums.

Other researchers looked at the stomach content of wild possums and found no ticks. They then looked at 23 other studies that had used wild possums and they reported the same results. Ticks are not a preferred food item for wild Virginia opossums.

Myth #13: Chickens And Guinea Fowl Control Ticks

The internet is full of anecdotal reports that chickens and guinea fowl rid areas of ticks but there is very little scientific support for these claims. A study from 1991 looked at chickens eating ticks in a cattle yard in Africa and concluded that they did eat the ticks found there. Similar to the above possum study, this might be a special situation.

Another study looked at the effect of helmeted guinea fowl on tick populations in lawns and found mixed results based on a small number of ticks found.

Chickens and guinea fowl do eat ticks but that does not mean they are an effective way of controlling populations. The University of Maine commented that “Guinea fowl and chickens are commonly promoted as tick controls, though research indicates that their tick consumption is minimal and is not effective in reducing local tick populations.”

Ticks also attach themselves to chicks.

Myth #14: DEET Does Not Repel Ticks

I found this myth reported on a web page that listed tick myths! Even reported myths can be myths themselves if you use the wrong source.

According to the CDC, a repellant containing DEET, picaridin, IR3535, Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE), para-menthane-diol (PMD), or 2-undecanone will repel ticks. That does not mean all of these are equally effective, but DEET definitely is effective.

Use products containing 0.5% permethrin to treat clothing and gear.

Myth #15: Beautyberry Bushes Keep Ticks Out Of Gardens

I reviewed this in detail in Does Callicarpa Beautyberry Repel Insects Such As Mosquitoes, Ticks Or Fire Ants?

Extracts of chemicals from the plant show some repellency for ticks. Unfortunately, gardeners then extrapolate this and conclude that the plants do the same thing. They don’t. And home made concoctions using beautyberry also do not work.

Myth #16: Ticks Are Repelled By Fragrant Plants Like Herbs

This is a common sentiment in discussion groups and uninformed web sites. Plants such as mint, lavender and peppermint are recommended for keeping ticks out of the garden.

There are two key mistakes here. First of all, even if plants produce a compound that repels ticks, it is never produced in large enough amounts by live plants to make a difference. Plants don’t work.

The second problem is that just because a plant is fragrant does not mean it will repel ticks or any other insect for that matter (Mosquitoes Repelled By Fragrant Plants)

Natural oil extracts from plants such as lavender, catnip, lemongrass and citronella have been tested and they don’t repel ticks, or if they do they only last a few minutes. Some plant oil extracts do show some repellency in lab tests, including cleome and rhododendron, but they are usually effective only against some species.

Myth #17: Natural Repellants Work As Good Or Better Than DEET

Lots of people want to go natural and believe that DEET is toxic. The facts are fairly clear here.

  1. Natural products, even the commercial ones, don’t work as well as DEET.
  2. When used as directed DEET is a very safe product.

The risk of disease from ticks is real – the safety concern about DEET, IR3535 and picaridin is not.

Myth #18: Nematodes Control Ticks

This one is only a partial myth. As with any control by nematodes it is important to use the right species. In this case it is important to use Steinernema carpocapsae, which is a generalist nematode that attacks over 200 different insects, but remember ticks are not insects – they’re arachnids . This is an ambush forager that lives at ground level, stands on its tail in an upright position and attaches itself to passing hosts. It can even jump onto pray.

Laboratory testing has shown that these nematodes are very effective against ticks. Another lab study has shown that only the blood-engorged adult females are attacked by the nematodes. Field studies are now being done.

It is too early to say that nematodes control wild populations, but there is some hope.

YouTube video

If you like this post, please share .......

Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

11 thoughts on “Tick Talk – 18 Myths About Ticks Debunked”

  1. Lavander, at least as italian almost mediterranean climate is concerned, is totally useless against ANY bugs. I have plenty of both in my sweetly warm mediterranean garden. Bugs and lavander

    Reply
  2. Do you know of any conclusive studies regarding DEET and its toxicity on dogs? I’m often in the field and I switched to picaridin since it was dog-safe and I didn’t want my dog to lick DEET.

    Reply
    • I’ve added this to the post

      What percent of ticks carry Lyme disease?

      That depends on where you live. Do the ticks in your area carry lime disease? “A recent study found that in the Northeast and Upper Midwest, up to 50 percent of blacklegged ticks are infected. But in the South and West, infection rates are usually less than 10 percent.”

      Reply
  3. In Australia, paraysis ticks kill thousands of pets every year. Vets recommend using a special tool to remove them. It’s a simple two-pronged fork that levers the tick out of the skin without squeezing it. Tweezers are the next best method.

    Reply
  4. You present informative posts and videos, and I appreciate the content and the work you do. I was in horticulture for 50 years, and I have yet to find one of your recommendations that, in my experience, is wrong. It is good to find some advice that isn’t just made up!

    So many growers think that they can make plants behave the way they want. Or that they can just plant them and walk away. That is the wrong attitude. We can only help them do well–the plants are in charge and we’re just helping them. Your recommendations understand that!

    Reply
  5. A lot of good sound information here. Thank you. One sure way I’ve found to keep tics at bay is to keep areas in your yard or garden clean, well mown and weed wacked, and free of garden debris. This is especially important if you have pets. I also avoid wooded areas unless on the move, such as when hiking, but even there you need to wear high socks and do a careful check of your body afterwards.

    Reply
  6. Thank you for this article. Do you know if there is any study that shows a tick needs to be attached for 24 hours before infecting it’s host with Lyme? The article you have the link for says “in most cases”. I ask because someone in a Lyme group mentioned there is no study that shows a tick needs 24 hours to infect, and also commented that as soon as a tick is imbedded it starts to impart whatever diseases it might be carrying through its saliva. I don’t know if the 24 hours have had actual studies on this or if it has just been believed to be the case for so long that it’s become “medical fact”.

    Reply
    • Good Question. This review of current literature, for Lyme disease concluded that, “there is no evidence of transmission by a single infected nymph within the first 24 h of attachment. By 48 h after attachment of a single infected nymph, the probability of transmission to result in host infection appears to be approximately 10%, increasing to reach 50% by 63–67 h, 70% by 72 h, and >90% for a complete feed. ”

      Other bacterial infections also seem to be transmitted slowly, but virus infections can happen quickly.

      I’ll add some of this to the original post.

      https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5857464/

      Reply
  7. Hi Thanks for this post. I knew most of these answers but a few were new to me. One of my pet peeves is Myth #16. That myth is is bandied about regarding all sorts of insects. Cockroaches and bedbugs(often with disastrous results) for example. Lavender in particular seems to be the (unfounded) cure for everything from infestations to ear aches.

    Reply

Please leave a comment either here or in our Facebook Group: Garden Fundamentals

Discover more from

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading