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Popular assumption bites back

MINNESOTA—Research ecologist Susannah Lerman of the Northern Research Station wants people to see their lawns as part of a nearly 40-million-acre new frontier for bees, but one deeply ingrained assumption had the potential to derail her quest: longer grass invites ticks.

Close-up of female deer tick on palm of hand.

Lerman, who is based at the station’s lab in Springfield, Massachusetts, and colleagues surveyed back yards in Springfield for two years to measure bee abundance and diversity in yards managed with different lawn mowing frequencies. Her research concluded that less frequent mowing resulted in more lawn flowers, hence, more bees.

However, she faced a problem. She received many comments about longer grass inviting ticks, so it was clear that understanding the risk of ticks would be essential to success. “It was clear that before we could make the case for promoting lawns as bee habitat, we had to understand the tick risk,” Lerman said.

Before Lerman could promote lawns as bee habitat, she and her colleagues needed to survey for blacklegged ticks as part of the research. In the Northeast, residents are particularly wary of blacklegged ticks—also known as deer ticks—because they carry Lyme disease. ​​​​​​

In a study published April 3, 2019, in the journal PLOS ONE, Lerman and co-author Vince D’Amico, a research entomologist with the Philadelphia Field Station, describe the results of the 144 tick drags: not a single blacklegged tick was found.

While blacklegged ticks are likely lurking in people’s yards, D’Amico said that the grassy part of a property is probably too dry for the tick.

The study, “Lawn mowing frequency in suburban areas has no detectable effect on Borrelia spp. vector (Ixodes scapularis),” is available online.