How Can You Make Your Home and Yard Safer from Lyme Disease?

Lyme Disease is something you just don’t want. Rich has had it twice. It was no fun, and he was lucky. Nearly as soon as symptoms appeared, he visited our family physician.   She prescribed a powerful antibiotic that worked wonders and left him with no lingering problems. Unfortunately, many Lyme Disease victims suffer pain and fatigue for years.  It’s serious.

Ticks In Jar

Collection of ticks

Lyme is often transmitted to a human from a bite by a tiny tick that picked up the disease bacteria from an infected white-footed mouse. It once was thought that deer were the primary carrier but mostly they are host to a tiny larval tick that infects a mouse that allows another tick to infect a person.

In theory, eliminating white-footed mice from a yard and home will greatly reduce the odds of transmission of this disease to people. Killing all of them isn’t feasible but reducing their numbers is.

About White-Footed and Deer Mice

White Footed and Deer Mice are amazingly common across much of North America.  They’re the cute, native mouse, not to be confused with the common house mouse that originated in the Old World.

White Footeds naturally live in dry temperate forests with brush. That perfectly describes suburban landscaping. It’s likely that five to 20 white-footed mice live in close proximity to most suburban families. They’re nocturnal and rarely seen.

Here are some characteristics:

  • They’re hoarders. Find a cache of corn, dog food, or acorns in a shoe or empty can and you’ve found a white-footed mouse cache.
  • They reproduce like crazy. A 44-day old female can become pregnant and bear a litter after 22 to 28 days. Babies become independent in three weeks and soon begin having their own babies. Mom often has two to four litters a year.
  • They don’t live long. A year-old mouse is elderly.
  • Foxes, weasels, hawks, owls, coyotes, and many other predators love dining on mice.
  • White Footed mice enjoy coming into homes, where they often find food and enjoy a furnace’s warmth. They can bring with them disease-bearing ticks.

Prudent homeowners carefully manage ticks, in part by reducing white-footed mice numbers. The fewer mice that live near people the lower the odds a person will contract Lyme Disease.  So, managing mice and ticks makes for a healthier home and yard.   Here are a few tips:

To reduce mouse populations and entry to homes:

  • Welcome mouse predators. Karla Bloem, Executive Director of the International Owl Center says, “Two actions people can take to encourage owls are to protect large dead trees that aren’t a threat to people of buildings should they fall. Owls love them. Also, building and erecting an owl house can welcome owls to live near a home and catch and eat mice.” Barred owl nest box plans, and plans for many other birdhouses, can be found at www.nestwatch.org.
  • Plug up holes that allow mice to enter a home and replace worn or broken weatherstripping. This is an important fall maintenance that also keeps cold drafts outside and reduces heating bills.
  • Avoid feeding mice. They love dining on dog or cat food left in a dish overnight or birdseed left under a feeder. Only feed pets and wild birds what they can eat in a short time. Then, pick up and clean the pet bowl.
  • Use snap traps to kill mice in the house. Avoid poison. A poisoned mouse can stagger outside to be caught and eaten by an owl, which can sicken or die from the poison.

A Few More Ways to Reduce Lyme Disease

In addition to reducing mouse numbers and applying a vaccine to keep survivors free of Lyme Disease bacteria here are a few other ways a person can do to reduce odds of infection:

different types of tick protection

Pants, boots, gaiters and insect repellents help protect from ticks.

Use Permethrin:   When applied to clothing, not skin, this chemical repels and kills ticks.  Rich purchased several sets of clothing from the Insect Shield Company that are impregnated with permethrin. Supposedly the tick-killing effectiveness lasts for 70 washings. The chemical is also available in spray cans to apply to any clothing.

 

 

 

Do Tick Checks:   After being outside, strip down and check the body over for ticks.   Then take a hot sudsy shower. Ticks usually crawl around on a person for several hours before biting. A tick merely walking on the skin can’t infect a person.

Opossum

Opossums groom themselves carefully.

Thank and welcome opossums:  New research indicates that opossums are tick vacuum cleaners. Ticks climb on them, but these primitive mammals groom often and eat the ticks they remove from their fur and skin. If you have a possum living in the yard be happy.

An Emerging Tool in the Battle Against Lyme Disease

A new product is being developed and tested by a major research company. It is an oral nontoxic vaccine placed in small baits. When strategically positioned around a yard, mice not yet infected with Lyme bacteria eat it and become resistant to the bacteria. Mice uninfected by Lyme can’t spread the disease to a person. If all goes well this product will be on the market by 2021 and may be a major help in reducing human cases of Lyme Disease.

Lyme Disease is an awful condition. Taking precautions to reduce the odds of being infected makes sense.

tick guards

gaiters with tick guard help repel ticks.

Are You in a Knot Over Japanese Knotweed?

Sometimes the best of intentions turn into a nightmare. A plant down the road from Winding Pathways is proof.

Flowers of knotweed

Beware the beauty of Japanese Knotweed.

In the 1840s Philipp Franz von Siebold was in Nagasaki, Japan, and believed a common native plant was so useful and interesting that it should be shared with the world. He shipped cuttings to the Netherlands. The plant thrived and soon gardeners were planting it because of its attractive reddish young leaves, hollow stems somewhat like bamboo, and its showy white flowers that bloom in September. Young shoots are even edible somewhat like asparagus in early spring.

Von Siebold thought he was doing a good thing by bringing this plant to Europe, but soon gardeners realized it was a rapidly spreading monster that crowded out more valuable vegetation. The World Conservation Union calls it one of the worst of the invasives.

It arrived in the United States in the late 1800s as a desirable garden plant, and soon it was found wild in at least 39 states. It’s an invasive problem in England, New Zealand, the United States, and many other countries.

Knotweed along roadside

Knotweed forms dense patches and spreads with rhizomes.

Japanese knotweed forms colonies so dense they crowd out all other plants. Rhizomes spread horizontally under the soil surface and soon new plants pop up from them.  Early spring shoots have a reddish cast. Leaves are triangular, and the plants quickly grow to four or five feet tall. They are amazingly abundant along streams and lakes. In Iowa, we often see them along roads. They are especially easy to spot when their showy white blooms form in late August and continue into September.

Knotweed is an edible plant in early spring, but anyone with a garden or natural area should be cautious about bringing it home. Drop a node on the ground and it will soon sprout and grow and grow and spread and spread.

Once established Knotweed is hard to control, although continuous mowing should knock it back. It’s something to keep out of the yard, and so far, we’ve been successful at Winding Pathways.

Boxelder Bugs

Lots of boxelder bugs are traipsing through homes this winter to the consternation of human occupants. We reluctantly share our home with a few during cold months.

This amazingly common and crafty insect is a true bug named for common boxelder tree. You don’t have to have boxelder trees nearby to “enjoy” visits by the bug. Maples and ash trees of several species make suitable hosts. Since these trees are everywhere in suburbia it’s no wonder boxelder bugs pester so many people. The insect makes its living feeding on tree seeds and sap yet poses no threat to its host. Unlike the pests of many other trees, boxelder bugs don’t kill trees.

Come fall box elder bugs prepare for cold weather by tucking themselves into bark crevices to patiently wait out the cold. However, they would rather be warm. If a house is nearby, they seem to sense that soon the furnace will be going and indoors is the best place to overwinter.

How Boxelder Bugs Get In

Box Elder bugs on outside window

All this winter box elder bugs have gathered on warm sunny sides of homes.

Although they are fairly large insects boxelder bugs can crawl through tiny cracks and holes. Often, they swarm in the sun on the exterior of a house and some manage to find their way inside. Winter is spent idly exploring light fixtures, furniture, and walls.

They are not really a serious pest. Pesky might be a better way to describe them. Boxelder bugs neither bite nor sting. They do sometimes crawl on people and pets. Perhaps their most disagreeable characteristics are pooping and emitting a disagreeable odor if they are crushed. It’s this bad odor that protects them from predators. Hardly anything will eat a boxelder bug.

Getting Rid of Boxelder Bugs in Your Home

Want to rid the house of boxelder bugs? The best defense is a caulking gun. Late each summer seal up cracks that allow them to squeeze into the house. Look for cracks and holes around window and door frames and around wires and pipes leading into the home. Bugs discovered wandering around inside can be vacuumed up, and a shop vac can suck up hundreds sunning on the exterior. Dump them in soapy water and they’ll quickly drown. A hose can also knock them off an exterior wall. Insecticides kill them but perhaps create more problems than they solve. Some people report that spraying them with soapy water also kills them.

We’ve had some success at Winding Pathways in reducing the number of bugs we pick off walls and windows in the winter. We used to bring in a week’s worth of firewood and stack it near the woodstove.  For years we didn’t realize boxelder bugs were hiding in the wood. Once they warmed up the insects set out exploring the house. Now we leave wood outside and only bring in a few pieces that go directly into the stove. It’s reduced, but not eliminated, the number of boxelder bugs inside.

Boxelder bugs aren’t harmful, but they are pesky and goofy. Caulking a home’s cracks can encourage them to winter outdoors in trees, rather than in homes. One speaker on Science Fridays quipped, “Boxelder bugs have nowhere to go and all day to get there.”

Mice! Keeping them Out of the House

After a balmy fall, the television weather report promised near record cold and snow in three or four days. Mice don’t have televisions but somehow, they knew this because several of the tiny mammals successfully entered our house just before cold arrived. One scurried across the floor as we were reading the morning newspaper.

Years ago we read our then young children a delightful book about a mouse in the house. The story goes: “There is a mouse in the house. It is a very nice mouse.  It has a long, long tail and shiny eyes. My mother likes the mouse. But, she says, ‘A mouse does not belong in a house.’”

We agree and have developed a strategy to keep them out – at least most of them.

One tactic we do not do is poison. Karla Bloem of the International Owl Center in Houston, MN, reminds us that poison spreads.  When a predator eats a poisoned mouse, it absorbs the poison.  Over time, the poison builds up and kills the predator. People end up with more mice that can cause problems.

Here’s what we do at Winding Pathways:

  • Encourage predators. We love to hear the barred owls call on dark evenings, and occasionally we spot a red-tailed hawk in a tree out the window. Both are outstanding mouse catchers. Owls work the night shift and hawks the day.
  • Keep food secure. If mice smell dinner they’ll come right in uninvited and help themselves. It’s important to never leave food out unprotected. We store grain, flour, pasta, cookies and other foods in metal or stout plastic containers with tight-fitting lids. We don’t leave fruits and vegetables on countertops.
  • Tighten up the house. Before it gets cold, we check our house over carefully. Any narrow cracks get filled with caulk.  If we find a wider crack, we fill it with expanding foam. Often entry points for mice and insects are around pipes and wires leading into the home. Caulk and expanding foam help seal off the entry.   Drain pipes sometimes are entry points. “Chore Girl” type metal cleaning pads work great for filling pipes where liquids or air needs to come and go. Wad up the metal pads and jam them into the pipe. Spaces in the cleaning pads let air and moisture enter or leave but keep mice out.
  • Bring out the traps. Despite our best efforts, some mice make it into the house. Usually, we don’t see them but do see their calling cards – their tiny black droppings.

Effectively setting traps

Old fashioned mouse traps still catch mice efficiently, but a few tricks make success more likely. (With the exception of the poison information in this website, we have found this information to be appropriate.)

Bait. Probably the best bait is peanut butter. It just takes a tiny dab on the trigger to work.

Placement. Where you set traps is important. Mice naturally run along walls and dart under counters if they can. Traps set in the middle of a room are less likely to catch mice than those set along a wall with the trigger on the wall side.

Mouse traps

Place several mouse traps where mice tend to enter.

Double up. It’s usually most effective to set several traps in the same spot. So, set two or three touching each other. The first trap or two might not catch the mouse.  Usually one will

Keep setting the traps until you catch no more mice. Often people assume they have one mouse, but likely, there are more.  Keep trapping until they’re all gone. We dispose of dead mice by simply tossing them outside for our local opossum to eat. They can be flushed down the toilet.  Always be sure to wash your hands after handling mice or traps.

Getting Rid of Yellow Jackets

Yellow Jacket hole

Yellow Jackets work the day shift.

We were recently concerned to find a Yellow Jacket nest close to our front door.   Normally we appreciate their ambitious work catching insect prey. If they had made their nest in an out of the way place, we would have left them alone. But, their nest location invited painful stings to us or visitors. They had to go.

 

 

Several species of Yellow Jackets live in the United States. Most make an underground nest that can have an opening on the soil surface upwards of an inch in diameter. It can be nearly anywhere, but the nest we found was beneath the lawn next to the walkway into the house.

Yellow Jacket queens overwinter and begin laying eggs in the spring. By late summer or fall, the few Yellow Jackets that were around in spring have multiplied into colonies that can have hundreds of individuals. The workers die in late fall.

Many people discover a Yellow Jacket nest when they walk by it or mow the lawn over the entrance. Angry insects instantly attack and often a hapless person is stung many times in a second or two. Stings really hurt. It’s happened to us more than once, so now we don’t tolerate a nest near the house.

Eliminating a Nest

We only kill a Yellow Jacket colony if it’s located where we, or visitors, might be stung.  Here’s how we do it:

Yellow Jackets work the day shift. Although they sometimes are out flying in the early evening by dark the entire colony is home underground in the nest. The nest entrance is easily spotted during the day by dozens of Jackets coming and going. We note its location. After dark we approach with a flashlight, spray can of insect killer, and a piece of cardboard, a board, or an old hunk of carpet. The flashlight helps find the hole. We spray a generous amount of poison down the hole, cover it with the carpet, board, or cardboard and weight it down with a rock. The covering keeps the spray in the nest.  

 The next morning, we watch for Yellow Jacket activity. Usually, there is none, telling us we destroyed the colony. We remove the covering, but if we see some Yellow Jackets we respray at night and cover the nest again. That usually solves the problem.

Lyme Disease – A Personal Story

Lyme Disease Has Spread

According to National Public Radio physicians in all 50 states have reported treating cases of Lyme Disease. It is named for the town of Lyme, Connecticut, where it was first identified in the 1970s.

At first, the disease was confined mostly to the Eastern States and parts of the upper Midwest, but it has since spread widely, and the Center for Disease Control considers it one of the fastest spreading vector-borne diseases. Lyme Disease can cause fatigue, joint pain, and serious long-term problems. It is spread to people bitten by a tick so tiny that often the victim never sees it.

What’s Up With the Fatigue?

Rich contracted Lyme Disease in 2015 and again in 2018 and was successfully treated by Cedar Rapids Physician, Mary Anne Nelson, both times. His experience may help anyone who may have contracted the disease enjoy recovery from the disease. A major symptom can be fatigue.

“In 2015 I felt utterly fatigued for weeks on end. I never saw a tick or had a rash so didn’t suspect Lyme Disease. Because I wasn’t terribly sick I delayed going to Dr. Nelson until I started having knee joint pain. She prescribed a blood test that was positive for Lyme and treated it with powerful antibiotics. Fortunately, the medication worked, I had no side effects from the medication, and after a couple of months my energy returned as the joint pain faded,” he said.

Return of Lyme Disease

Rash on arm.

A common symptom is a generalized rash that is warm to the touch.

In 2018 a pinkish rash appeared on Rich’s left shoulder along with shoulder joint pain.

 

 

 

 

He immediately visited Dr. Nelson. She prescribed antibiotics, skipping the blood test.   Symptoms vanished in a few weeks.

Not all Lyme victims are as fortunate as Rich and many struggle with the disease for years. Anyone who experiences the symptoms of rash, joint pain, or lethargy, even if they don’t feel terribly sick, should get to their physician right away. Early treatment may be most effective.

Hard to Detect

According to Dr. Nelson, Rich’s second round of Lyme was fairly typical. Like him, many victims are unaware they were bitten by a tick and often a pink rash is more common than the classic bullseye rash once thought to be a key symptom.

Lyme Disease isn’t restricted to people who slog through woods and prairies. The tick can lurk in yards, on golf courses, and in city parks. Although Lyme Disease is serious, remember, being in Nature offers tremendous health benefits. The risk of Lyme Disease shouldn’t discourage people from enjoying the outdoors.

Tips

Winding Pathways is concerned that people will shun the outdoors for fear of Lyme Disease. We encourage people to continue to enjoy their yards but be aware of the possibility of Lyme Disease, know its symptoms and take some precautions to ensure good health. Here are suggestions:

  • Tuck long pants into socks to make it difficult for a tick to access the skin.
  • Spray clothing with Permethrin. This chemical kills ticks and insects and is meant to be applied to clothing, not skin. It persists on clothes through several washings. Rich keeps a pair of permethrin-treated pants in the garage that he dons when working or walking in ticky areas.
  • Purchase and wear clothing permeated with permethrin. Socks are available from Red Start Birding. A full line of clothing is available from Insect Shield.  Local stores may sell permethrin treated clothes.
  • After being outdoors take a sudsy shower and do a body tick check. Ticks sometimes walk on the skin for hours before biting. A tick strolling on the skin but not dug into the skin won’t cause Lyme Disease. Flush it down the toilet. Wash your hands.
  • Be aware of symptoms. If a rash, lethargy, or joint pain appears get to a doctor right away.

Go Outside and play.  The mental and physical benefits from contact with nature are huge. Just be tick aware.