Nova Scotia

Why you don't need to fear ticks lurking in your Christmas tree

The Christmas tree in your living room likely isn't harbouring unwanted holiday visitors. But the fear that ticks are lurking among the tinsel and ornaments is real, according to a zoologist and Christmas tree producer.

Zoologist Andrew Hebda says ticks prefer grass and shrubs and usually fall off when a tree is brought inside

Blacklegged ticks don't tend to cling to Christmas trees, says Andrew Hebda with the Museum of Natural History. (AP Photo/Victoria Arocho, File)

The Christmas tree in your living room likely isn't harbouring unwanted holiday visitors.

But the fear that ticks are lurking among the tinsel and ornaments is real, according to Mike Keddy, president of the Christmas Tree Council of Nova Scotia.

Keddy said last year producers regularly heard from customers worried about bringing home blacklegged ticks, which can carry the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.

"It's certainly a concern to someone that's going to purchase a product and bring it into their home. They don't want to bring in any type of pest … whether it's an ant or whether it's a tick," he said. 

While Keddy said there's been less concern this season, he expects it did have an impact on the province's Christmas tree industry in 2017. 

But zoologist Andrew Hebda with the Museum of Natural History in Halifax said people shouldn't worry.

"Can you get anything off Christmas trees that's going to cause you problems? No," he said. 

Shake it off

Hebda said ticks tend to stick closer to the ground and prefer to climb on tall grass and shrubs. The arachnids hang off a plant using their back legs and wait for an unsuspecting hiker or animal to pass by. 

While it's possible for ticks to climb onto evergreen trees, they're not ideal because the branches point downward and don't offer a good spot to grab onto a host, said Hebda. 

Hebda says people often ask him whether it's possible to bring in ticks with your tree, but he's never actually heard of it happening. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

If a tick does decide to hang out in a balsam fir or spruce, it doesn't take much to shake them off.

"They're only very loosely hanging on in the first place so any kind of movement of that tree, either from the woods or from the lot or from the car or even bringing it into the house, if there was one on there that would dislodge it.

"So finding one in the house would be highly unlikely."

Keddy, who has been working in the Christmas tree industry all his life, said he's never actually seen a blacklegged tick on a Christmas tree.

"The chances of a tick being on a Christmas tree and staying on that tree through the production cycle is extremely, extremely remote," he said. 

Ticks still a problem in winter

Even though ticks may not be spending time in your Christmas tree, they're still out there, even in the winter. Whenever the temperature is above 4 C, female ticks are more active and begin climbing around, said Hebda.

It's a message the mayor of the Municipality of the District of Lunenburg said residents need to hear. 

"It's still very important that if you're walking in the woods, you're in the tall grass, you're in the dead grass areas, that you do your daily tick checks. This is still the most effective way to prevent Lyme disease," said Carolyn Bolivar-Getson. 

Lisa Ali Learning, the founder of Atlantick Repellant Products in Mahone Bay, says it's important for people to do their research. (CBC)

Lisa Ali Learning, who started making and selling natural anti-tick spray after her sons contracted Lyme disease, said she's not giving up her live Christmas tree but she regularly hears from others who are worried about trucking ticks inside. 

Ali Learning said a quick search online proves just how unlikely it is. 

"Education is key. Not to the point where you're terrified of going out into the woods, but where you're being precautious," she said. 

While ticks aren't usually attracted to Christmas trees, it's important to be cautious when you're outdoors, even in the winter. (Cathy Alex/CBC)

Hebda said other insects are known to climb on to Christmas trees, including the western conifer seed bug, which began showing up in Nova Scotia about a decade ago. 

It's possible to find these harmless two-centimetre bugs crawling around your floor in January or February, he said.

Hebda advises Nova Scotians who find insect intruders in their homes after the holidays to take a picture and send it to the museum for identification. 

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