The weather is warming up which means it's time to watch out for ticks. One way to protect yourself from tick-borne illnesses is to rethink landscaping choices, from the municipal level down to individual yards, according to a Virginia Tech medical geography expert who studies how Lyme cases are associated with certain land cover characteristics and configurations.

“We found higher rates of Lyme disease in areas with herbaceous cover, such as meadows and grass, as well as the edges or boundaries between herbaceous land cover and forest patches,” said Korine Kolivras, a professor in the university’s Department of Geography, part of the College of Natural Resources and Environment.

“Many neighborhoods, especially in our region, fit this profile and individuals could take steps to reduce our interaction with tick populations,” she said.

“At the broad scale, we may want to rethink how we develop residential neighborhoods in terms of this landscape configuration that mixes herbaceous and forested land,” she said. “For individual risk, though, we need to consider very local characteristics of the areas in which people move around, as well as their individual behavior. Yard modifications can make a difference when it comes to the probability of interaction with ticks.”

She offered these modification tips:

Rethink how we create our residential neighborhoods. By reducing the number of small forest patches that are interspersed with patches of herbaceous cover and keeping large, forested areas intact, we can likely reduce Lyme disease risk on a broad scale. 

Modify individual yard spaces. If we zoom in to the individual spaces in which many of us live, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has specific recommendations such as regular mowing, placing a mulch edge around play areas, and clearing brush at the edge of open spaces. We're still talking about reducing that forest-herbaceous edge, but now at the very local backyard edge. While deer are not a Lyme disease reservoir or source of the bacterium, they are a food source for ticks, so discouraging deer with fences and vegetation reduction can keep deer, and the ticks that hang out on them, farther from our residential outdoor spaces. 

Minimize risk by reducing interactions with ticks when outdoors. With respect to human behavior, the CDC and other groups recommend hiking in the center of a trail to minimize the likelihood of brushing against vegetation where ticks could be "questing" or hanging out looking for a host. It's also recommended to wear long sleeves and pants that are tucked into socks, which can admittedly be difficult on a hot summer hike, and to carefully check for ticks every evening. Insect repellants can further reduce risk. 

More from the CDC can be found here

About Kolivras

Korine Kolivras is an environmental geographer with specialization and expertise in medical geography and the examination of links between environmental variability and human health. Her research has examined the incidence of Lyme disease in Virginia and its prevalence among areas where forest land meets agricultural land. 

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