Ask a Naturalist – Ticked off

c-miss ticked deer vs wood tick


Q: Help, I’m scared to go outside because of ticks!

Ticks. They’re a fact of life outdoors in the warmer months of Minnesota. Most people find them gross and scary, which is understandable since they are parasitic arachnids. Ticks are literally out for blood, and they’re sneaky about it. You can’t just slap them away, like a mosquito. They hide along the body’s crevices then attach to the host through a painless bite. Of course, ticks are also notorious carriers of Lyme disease and a variety of other tick-borne illnesses. It’s almost enough to make you want to stay indoors!

In Minnesota, summertime is brief and it would be a shame for anyone to let fear keep them from enjoying outdoor activities. The key to feeling comfortable outdoors is gaining knowledge and then taking reasonable precautions. That way outside summer fun can be a source of merriment rather than anxiety.

Here in Minnesota, there are two main tick species that interact with humans; wood ticks and deer ticks. The wood tick (or American dog tick) is larger and an unlikely carrier of disease. They are dark brown with white markings on the back, and range from about 1/4 to 1/2  inch long. While it’s possible for wood ticks to carry bacteria that transmit diseases, it is quite rare in Minnesota.

Deer ticks (black-legged ticks) are smaller: adults are about 1/8  inch long, while larvae or nymphs are less than 1/16 inch long. Their bodies are reddish brown with black legs and head and a black area on their back near the head. Deer ticks are able to transmit Lyme disease. They can also carry several other potentially serious diseases, but Lyme disease is the most commonly reported in Minnesota.

From the time ticks hatch from an egg as a tiny larva they are looking for their next meal. The larva must get a blood meal before it can grow to the next stage, a nymph. Again, the nymph must feed on blood before growing to adult size, and eat more blood before it can lay eggs. Most often, ticks bite animals such as deer, mice, raccoons, etc., but humans work just the same.

Ticks hang out in places where they are not exposed to direct sunlight because they dry out easily. Typically, they are found in areas with long grass or shrubbery, where it is easy to ambush a passing animal. Ticks cannot jump, rather they cling to a plant, waiting to grasp any potential host moving by. Before entering favorable tick habitat, spray your skin or clothes with an effective insect repellent, such as DEET, or permethrin, which should be applied to clothes only. Tucking pants into socks and wearing light colored clothing can also make it easier to spot any ticks that do climb on you.

It is important to promptly and thoroughly check your body for ticks after outdoor adventures because tick bites are almost never felt and can go unnoticed. You should check every part of your body, not just areas that were exposed. Pay special attention to crevices and tight areas like the backs of the knees, armpits and waistband, as well as behind the ears, through hair and on the scalp. Don’t forget to check any gear such as shoes or bags for ticks too. Toss clothes and gear into the dryer for 10 minutes to kill any missed ticks.

While checking for ticks, simply pluck off any that haven’t bitten yet and flush them down the toilet or stick them to a piece of tape before throwing away. Remove any ticks that have bitten as soon as possible, to reduce the risk of possible disease transmission. Use tweezers or a special tick remover to grab the tick as close to the skin as possible—usually on its head and pull slowly and firmly straight out. Don’t grasp the main body of the tick, as that can push its body contents into you, including any diseases it might be carrying. Avoid folk remedies like suffocation with Vaseline, nail polish remover or burning matches – they are not a safe or effective way to remove ticks

Even though ticks are a creepy nuisance for the host animals, they are an important food source for reptiles, amphibians, birds and opossums, which eat a remarkable quantity of ticks. Learn about more pleasant kinds of urban wildlife at our Urban Wildlife program on August 27 from 3-4 p.m. Visit the Nature Center at North Mississippi on August 12 between 1-4 p.m. to celebrate an afternoon of dragonflies. Thursdays 6:30-8:30 p.m., hang out in our backyard for Neighborhood Nights. Enjoy a bonfire with campfire treats, outdoor games, and activities. If you have young children, come to our Nature Nuts playgroup for kids under age six and an adult to explore the outdoors and learn about seasons, plants, and animals.

August Public Programs: August 4—Early Birding: search for birds while on a naturalist-guided hike, 9-10:30 a.m.; August 8—Nature Nuts Play Group: four weeks of adult/child nature exploration, 10:30-11:30 a.m.; August 12—Family Funday: Dragonfly Snag & Spy: Catch and learn about these amazing aerialists, 1-4 p.m.; August 18—Hike: Migratory Birds: Walk with a naturalist to learn about seasonal bird residents, 2:30-3:30 p.m.; and August 27—Outdoors: Urban Wildlife: our animal neighbors, making a life in the city, 3-4 p.m.

Sign up kids ages 6-12 for Summer Day Camps, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. M-F $150 (full-day) or $80 (half-day)

Camps run weekly all summer long. Fee assistance is available – call for details.

Find registration for these programs and more at or call 612-370-4844 for more details. Do you have a question about nature in your own backyard? Then send it to and it could appear in a future article. This month look for a wild animal in the park or your neighborhood! Create a drawing or take a picture and think about what makes that animal special. Then show and tell a naturalist at the front desk to receive a North Mississippi Junior Naturalist button! Any images people would like to share will be displayed at the Center for the month of August. Like us on Facebook to stay in the loop about what is happening at your park!

This article was written by Victoria Thompson, Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board Naturalist at North Mississippi Regional Park