Lions, Tigers and Bears? No – It’s Fleas, Ticks and Mosquitoes! Oh My!

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This article was originally written by Minda Daughtry, past Horticulture Agent in Lee County.

Dorothy had her predator worries in the Land of Oz, and we do too – ours are smaller and often have six or more legs instead of four, but are on the hunt for food never-the-less.

Spring has sprung and the gardener in us is just itching to get outside and get started. That is a good thing. However, as I am reminded just this morning while pulling ticks off of me, we have company. Actually when you consider the available volume of food source versus the effort expended to get at it, we can be compared to a “big-box” grocery store that delivers.

Let’s take a closer look at these pest predators. Pretty much all warm-blooded animals are fed upon by fleas. Flea bites cause a persistent, annoying itch that causes the skin to be irritated when scratched. They may feed and breed throughout the year but their growth often slows during the winter months because of low temperatures. Cat and dog fleas jump from their cocoons when CO2 and vibrations signal the proximity of a host. The dog flea, for example, may live about 60 days without feeding. If fed, adults may survive for 230 days without another meal. Temperatures of 65 to 70°F and a humidity of about 70% are optimal for flea development. Fleas are controlled by specific insecticides depending on what type of animal is infested and whether the infestation occurs indoors or outdoors. See links below for more information.

Ticks, vectors of potentially debilitating and life-threatening diseases including Lyme disease, also prey upon warm blooded animals. Their bites are not only annoying and painful but may result in localized skin inflammation, secondary infection and possible introduction of disease-causing microorganisms. These pests are not insects but are closely related to mites, spiders and scorpions. Adult ticks have eight legs, while adult insects have only six.

The female mated tick drops to the ground and deposits from 3,000 to 6,000 eggs, which hatch into larvae or “seed ticks.” Larvae climb nearby vegetation where they collect in large numbers while waiting for small rodents or other vertebrates to pass within reach. After a blood meal on the host, the engorged larvae drop to the ground, molt and emerge as nymphs to await the passage of a host, engorge themselves with blood, drop to the ground, molt again and become adults. Adult ticks seek host animals and after engorgement, mate and another 3,000 to 6,000 eggs get started again. It should be noted that ticks capable of transmitting Lyme disease must be attached for at least 24 hours for infection to occur. A person cannot become infected simply by having a tick crawl over their skin or clothing.

For some degree of protection against ticks, keep clothing buttoned, shirt tails inside pants and pant legs inside tops of socks. Tick control in home lawns and other vegetated areas usually can be obtained with residual sprays or dusts. Pay attention to areas around building foundations, along roadsides, animal trails and paths used by people.

And last but not least, the mosquito. There are approximately 50 species of mosquitoes in NC. Most female mosquitoes prefer warm-blooded animals, including people, birds, and livestock. Only seven or eight of the over 50 known species of mosquitoes in NC pose a health hazard. All mosquitoes require water to complete their life cycle. Mosquito larvae mature anywhere between 5 days and 4 weeks, depending on water temperature and species.

A few days after emerging, adult females are ready to feed and mate. A blood meal is usually required before females can lay eggs and repeat the life cycle. We can reduce the number of mosquito breeding sites and virtually eliminate the mosquito problem with little or no chemical usage by eliminating standing water in places like birdbaths, pet saucers, buckets, old tires etc… If there are standing pools of water that can’t be easily emptied, use mosquito dunks. These doughnut-shaped tablets contain a naturally occurring bacterium known as Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis that kills mosquito larvae before they are able to mature. The dunks are effective for around 30 days and are not harmful to fish, birds, mammals or other wildlife. Personal protection with repellents containing DEET, or lemon eucalyptus oil can temporarily control being bothered by these pests. Currently, the USDA is researching compounds found in the leaves of American beautyberry, Callicarpa americana, for their mosquito repelling properties. Another great reason to landscape with these native beauties!

Please remember the USER always is responsible for the effects of pesticide residues on his/her own premises, as well as problems caused by drift from his property to that of the neighbor’s. Always read and follow carefully all instructions on the product label.

Amanda Wilkins Bratcher is the Horticulture Agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.