Setting aside plants, ticks and bees are the living things that gardeners have worried about most for the past several years. I picked up new information about both at the New England Grows trade show in Boston this month.

First, the scariest information – from Thomas Mather, director of the TickEncounter Resource Center and a professor at the University of Rhode Island: Ticks are lurking outside now – yes, in December – waiting to suck your blood and, as a possible bonus, give you Lyme disease.

“The adult stage of the black-legged tick (another term for the deer tick, which carries Lyme disease) doesn’t become active until after the first frost,” Mather said during his lecture. He noted that because it was expected to hit 50 degrees that coming weekend (and it has neared 50 degrees several times since), people would be outside, and no doubt some would pick up ticks.

My wife, Nancy, and I have been spraying our gardening clothes with permethrin, a tick-killing insecticide, for the past several years. But it turns out we have been doing it wrong.

Mather stressed that ticks crawl up, starting at ground level where the deer and white-footed mice they feed on, spend time. He recommends that you spray your gardening shoes with permethrin once a month and that you spray 6 inches up the inside and outside of your pants legs.

We have never done either. Although we have worn treated socks and slacks, we’ve treated the slacks on the outside only. That will change.

I haven’t done the math to figure out which is less expensive, but Mather noted that on clothing that you spray, the treatment lasts a month, or five washings (whichever comes first). Commercially treated clothing stays effective for about 70 washings.

Another useful fact from the lecture was that deer ticks prefer shade and avoid sun. If you are treating your yard for ticks, spray the wooded trails, the garden edges near woods and the shade gardens where it is humid. Spray twice each year, once in mid-May and once in mid-June. Skip sunny gardens or lawns, which dog ticks like but the Lyme-carrying deer ticks don’t.

According to Mather, while so-called natural treatments vary widely and studies show that they have not killed ticks consistently, bifenthrin and permethrin do work. And they work in diluted concentrations, plus if you bypass the sunny spaces, you’ll minimize any potential damage from the lawn spray to beneficial insects.

While deer ticks come in many sizes – and all sizes are potential carriers of Lyme disease – larval deer ticks are as small as poppy seeds, so they are difficult to spot. A tick must be on your body 24 hours before it can give you Lyme disease, so do check for ticks on any days you have been outside. You should check for small lumps, too, Mather said, especially on your scalp, around your ears, behind your knees, under your arms and on your back. TickEncounter ( has small posters you can put in your bathroom to remind you to check before you shower.

If you find a tick on your body, remove it with pointed tweezers (do not use blunt end tweezers or one of those tick removal scoops), take a picture of the tick and email it to to find out if it is a risky tick. If the answer is yes, go to, and get it tested to see if it is infected with Lyme disease.

On to bees, which are much friendlier critters than ticks – despite their mostly undeserved reputation for stinging people.

“Stinging is something social bees and wasps do,” said Kimberly Stoner, a vegetable and pollination specialist with the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. “Social bees have resources to defend, while solitary bees don’t have much to defend.”

Social bees are those that live and work in colonies, generally in hives in gardens or in hollow trees in the wild. Pollinating bees come in many forms. Typically, they are native species; the honey bee is not.

Playgrounds are a favorite home of the cellophane bee, a good native pollinator that makes its nest in the ground, Stoner said. They like patchy lawns with no pesticides, and playground grass is often patchy because it’s used a lot. At the same time, many communities ban the use of pesticides on playgrounds.

Some parents, of course, notice the cellophane bees and, fearing stings, demand that the bees be removed. Stoner emphasized that these bees are harmless. She showed video of someone petting foraging solitary bees without angering them at all.

“These bees will only sting if you pick them up and squeeze them,” she said. Many schools in her area of Connecticut now have ground nesting bees without any reports whatsoever of stings on playgrounds.

Stoner’s expertise is in Connecticut, so she gathered her Maine data from Frank Drummond, a blueberry specialist at the University of Maine with wide experience dealing with bees.

He relayed that the population of bumblebees crashed in Maine in 2009. (On the positive side, one species, bombus terricola or the yellow-banded bumblebee, is making a comeback.) Many things have contributed to the bumblebee collapse, among them climate change. The bumblebee is losing ground at the southern end of its range but, alas, it is not gaining on the northern end.

In addition, bumblebees used in larger greenhouses for tomatoes have picked up diseases and escaped, perhaps infecting more wild bumblebees.

The University of Maine is conducting a survey of what home gardeners are doing to assist pollinators, which the Garden Club Federation of Maine has given to each of its members to fill out. Anyone else who would like to take part should email [email protected].

Reading the survey, I realize I can do a lot more to help bees – once spring arrives. Unfortunately, unless we finally get some snow and/or a steady run of really cold temperatures, tick-preparedness really can’t wait.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at [email protected].

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.