The Science Behind Organic Treatments For Tick Infested Yards

Cape Cod Mosquito Squad owner Curtis Felix speaks with Ben Robertson, owner of digital marketing agency Menadena, about organic options that can be used and the science behind treating a tick infested yard with such an organic treatment.

Interview transcript:

Ben Robertson 

So, one of the questions that people have often, especially on the Outer Cape, is what can you do with regard to organic products or all natural products or pick a term that people feel is something that's a non-chemical type product for ticks. And there's a great deal of public interest in not using any type of quote unquote chemical on the Cape, especially the Outer Cape. And dating back quite a few years ago, Larry Dapsis, who's the county entomologist also known as the “tick guy” on the Cape, he is a Barnstable County employee. 

Curt Felix 

Going back a couple of years ago, I've had the good fortune to interact with Larry, and Larry does the counts. He does the cataloging of the types of species and all things related to ticks and tick diseases on the Cape. To date, he's cataloged about 13 different diseases now present on the Cape and documented at least two new species of ticks just over the last couple of years. So it's a growing problem. The disease rate is increasing and the number of ticks species is increasing, so it's becoming even more of a public health threat. And obviously your own personal experiences seeing how bad they actually are here. 

Curt Felix 

He also feels very strongly about one topic and that is all-natural, organic products from Cape Cod Mosquito Squad. Mosquito Squad and some of our other sister organizations around the country have been trying a new product that is cedar-based that they have been seeing very good results with both ticks and mosquitoes.  It is actually a food grade product, so in terms of its safety, it's pretty incredible what this product actually is. It is used in the cosmetic industry, and it does not harm any beneficial insects. For example, bees literally would have to be put in the product and drowned in order to kill them. It's just not a concern for bees, butterflies or pollinators.

Ben Robertson 

This is Ben Robertson of Menadena Marketing. I'm here today with Cape Cod Mosquito Squad owner Curt Felix, and we're discussing today the state of the science on tick control using organic products. How are you today, Curt? 

Curt Felix 

Very good, how are you? 

Ben Robertson 

Excellent. Very happy to have a chance to discuss this with you. As you know, I was just on Cape Cod and I came home with two deer ticks and my mother came home with one, and so we discovered firsthand that deer ticks are a major issue on the Cape and you've got to be super careful to not get bitten. 

Curt Felix 

That's horrible. The tick populations from what we're hearing from customers this year are very high. We don't have and won't have the exact numbers until probably when the season's over and we have a better assessment, but with a cool, dark, damp spring that we had and the extended cold weather, we have a really big tick population this year. And it sounds like you were probably at some properties that are not receiving the Mosquito Squad services.

Ben Robertson 

That is, I think, true. And I think I would have appreciated having a little bit more protection so that we wouldn't have gotten those ticks if it was avoidable. 

Curt Felix  that peer-reviewed science needs to drive decisions about what gets used for tick prevention. There's lots of things that you can do from a personal prevention standpoint, wearing long pants, wearing socks over your pants so you can see ticks if they get on you, spraying your clothes with Permethrin is something that he recommends if you're going to be hiking. And being generally tick aware. If you get a tick you can send it into the county or your local health agent and they will send it to a lab and it can be tested for disease. So there's a lot of governmental support to try to help with this growing problem.

Curt Felix

But many people are very interested in something that is quote unquote non-chemical, and the only thing that he will say about it is that nothing has peer-reviewed science to support effectiveness against ticks. And that's kind of a showstopper for a company like ours that needs to rely on peer-reviewed science in making public health recommendations to our customers and our clients. And so we've been very cautious as we move forward and advised our customers that things like the spearmint and wintergreen formulas, there are formulas with eucalyptus, there are formulas with lemongrass, there's a whole variety of ingredients, none of those have been shown to be effective on ticks. Even a product in the past, there have been cedar products that are out there, I think called Tick Stop, but the science isn't really there on the all natural or essential oil products as far as tick control. 

Curt Felix 

Mosquito Squad and some of our other sister organizations around the country have been trying a new product that is cedar-based that they have been seeing very good results with ticks and mosquitoes. In the past we have not seen good results with the other essential oil products which contain wintergreen and spearmint, and it's great with mosquitoes. It does a great job with green heads and no-see-ums, but it was ineffective with ticks. They are seeing good results with the cedar product and in fact not seeing callbacks, which is kind of how we judge the effectiveness of a product. But in terms of the science, there's at this point no peer-reviewed literature to support the effectiveness. They have lab tests and those tests have obviously been conducted by people that were paid by them to show how effective the product can be over a period of time. And we have experience now with a number of locations that have big tick populations, and those locations are in fact seeing great results. 

Curt Felix 

So Cape Cod Mosquito Squad is going to be using this product on the Outer Cape as part of a trial to see if we get results that are similar to what our sister organizations are seeing. But again, we're kind of going out a little bit on a limb because the peer-reviewed literature certainly isn't caught up yet to what we're at least seeing from some initial field trials. So that's kind of in a nutshell what the state of the art is. The Permethrin based, which is a chrysanthemum derived product that we use, is effective, does have peer-reviewed literature to support its effectiveness on ticks. It's a great product that there's some concern in terms of that particular product affecting bees. There are cautions when you're working around bees, but at Mosquito Squad we're extremely careful not to spray flowering plants. And we do have beekeepers that use us and are not seeing adverse impacts on their beehives or on bee populations. 

Curt Felix 

So again, we're trying to be as uber-aggressive as we can, both in terms of the lowest impact products that we can use, but also at the same time recognizing what the state of the science is and what the best recommendations are for public health. Our first responsibility is to tell people the facts as we know them and generally let people try to make their own decisions about ultimately what they'd like to do for a treatment program. 

Ben Robertson 

That's great. So you're using this cedar-based product on the Cape now? 

Curt Felix 

We are rolling the cedar-based product out to the Outer Cape. We started in Provincetown within the last couple of weeks and we just got enough supply to be able to do the rest of the Cape starting right away. So we are implementing that as we speak. 

Ben Robertson 

That's great. And how are you talking to customers about it? 

Curt Felix 

That's the $64,000 question. One of the things that we'd like to do is, believe it or not, not tell our customers out of a concern that if you tell customers upfront what you're doing with something like this, you can get a false response. In other words, the customer thinks because we've changed something that's working in the past that the new thing suddenly isn't working. Or vice versa, they think it's working better. So sometimes when you're trying to run an experiment, you typically want to do a blind study, ideally, so you wouldn't tell people that you're making this change and then the data will be better as you review it, knowing that there's no bias or influence from telling people about a change. 

Curt Felix 

Now legally, on every single work order we have to by law indicate exactly what was used on a property. So customers will in fact be getting a work order slip that indicates very specifically what we did and the change will be noted there. But it's kind of a dilemma in terms of what you can do to screw up the data if you actually broadcast to people. I think there will be a point when we do broadcast. And the other thing is that since this is a trial, we also want to be careful that we're not telling people definitively that we're going to make a change until we're confident and comfortable that the change is what it's cracked up to be. In other words, that we're getting results that are similar to what our peers are seeing, which would indicate that this is a positive change and it's at least as good, if not better than the system that we were using before. 


Ben Robertson 

That's great. And as far as cost, a lot of the times people think of essential oils as being very expensive. Are you finding that you're able to use the cedar-based product in a cost effective manner compared to the Permethrin? 

Curt Felix 

We're pretty comfortable that in fact it won't have a negative impact on our costs. Part of the challenge in the trial is determining whether in fact we can still do a three week interval or whether we need to do a two week interval. A two week interval will obviously add cost because of the manpower and additional product that would be used during the course of a season. But we're pretty confident based on, again, the two years worth of data that's already been accumulated elsewhere, that we will be able to do a three week interval and that we will be able to effectively keep the same costs, even with this product. So we're trying to hold the line on pricing and cost. 

Ben Robertson 

Well, that's really good news. Is there anything else that you want to say about the state of the science and using organic products for tick control? 

Curt Felix 

There is a University of Connecticut Extension study that did compare a number of these essential oil products, and that is sort of the basis of some of what the county entomologist’s concerns are with respect to these essential oil treatments

Curt Felix 

The cedar product that we're actually trialing, a couple of the other benefits are that it's a kosher product. It is actually a food grade product. Its safety is pretty incredible. This product is actually used in the cosmetic industry. It does not harm any beneficial insects. For example, bees literally would have to be put in the product and drowned in order to kill them. It's just not a concern for bees, butterflies or pollinators, and that's obviously a concern. We have to be pretty careful with Permethrin and use a low percentage and avoid flowering shrubs and plants and that sort of thing. 

Curt Felix 

We will continue to do that even with this new cedar product, just because that's good practice relative to pollinator protection, and that's a very strong concern of ours and we want to make sure that we're always protecting pollinators. Even with this product that has no adverse impact, we're going to continue to use best practices relative to pollinator protection and relative to other protected resources. Even though supposedly these things are quote unquote safe and not a problem, we're going to still exercise the cautions that we would in doing any kind of application, even with these products. 

Ben Robertson 

I think that's great. And ever since Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring people have been concerned about pesticide use and all kinds of chemicals in the environment. I think it's great that we've taken the time to educate people on Permethrin as a useful way to prevent ticks and mosquitoes, and also safe and effective. And I think it's great that you're looking at these other alternatives with the cedar-based product to continue doing the same thing. 

Curt Felix 

Well, thank you, Ben. We are certainly hopeful that this will pan out the way it has initially because it would certainly, relax some concerns that people have with regard to good tick and mosquito treatment. But as you said, no matter what you're using, I just feel that you always have to be extremely careful, even when somebody says something is completely benign. We know what we're likely to see and what to expect and have good practices and training in place to continue to protect precious resources. So even, like I said, with this product, we're going to continue to do that. 

Ben Robertson 

You mentioned some of this government support, where people could actually send in a tick so that it could go to a lab for testing. Do you know any off-hand that we should be looking for? 

Curt Felix 

If you go to Cape Cod Extension service, and tick, there's a link. 

Ben Robertson 

Okay, great. Cape Cod Extension service, and then click on tick? 

Curt Felix 

Yeah. And the Extension service has a link with information about how you can send a tick to college, which is basically sending it out to UMass.

Ben Robertson 

All righty. That's wonderful and we'll look forward to talking to you next time. 

Curt Felix 

Thanks, Ben. 

Ben Robertson 

And that’s it for this episode of the Cape Cod Mosquito Squad podcast.