Deer Ticks

By Pat Dickey, Fairfax Master Gardener

deer ticks

Adult and nymph

Media reports have been warning us that 2021 could be another bad year for deer ticks. Our winter was exceptionally mild and our spring rainy, both contributing to their larger population. Here is some information on how to identify the different types of ticks and ways to prevent them from harming you.

What are we looking for?
The deer tick (Ixodes scapularis) is the most prevalent type of tick in Fairfax County and the one that can transmit Lyme disease. A deer tick is brown and reddish when fed, with black legs. It has three feeding stages: larva, nymph and adult, and its life cycle can last for two years. Each of these stages feeds on, or bites, a different host, usually mice, deer or rabbits. Ticks ingest the bacterium for Lyme disease (Borrelia burgdorferi) from feeding on these small, infected mammals. We humans have become accidental hosts in this tick’s life cycle.

Most humans become infected from nymphs, when they are active in late spring and summer. Nymphs are about 1 to 2 mm long, about the size of a pin, and have eight legs. Deer ticks wait on the tips of tall weeds and grasses for a mammal host to brush up against them. Contrary to popular belief, ticks cannot fly or jump. After feeding on a host, a tick is filled with blood and drops from the host into a protected place. There it molts to the next stage. The adult females produce eggs after their final blood meal. Adult females can be 10 mm long after feeding.

How do we keep them away?
Prevention is the best way to keep these ticks from infecting you. Deer ticks thrive in humid and moist conditions. favoring dense areas with tall grasses and vegetation. Therefore, it is important to keep your lawn mowed. Rake up and remove moist leaf litter. Prune and remove brush on your property to allow for more sunlight and to reduce humidity. Experts suggest creating a 3-foot wide barrier of wood chips or gravel in areas adjacent to woods as additional protection. Do not try to treat large areas for ticks, since they tend to be concentrated in small areas. See the VA Pest Management Guide about spraying outside of your house for ticks.

An increase in the deer populati