A Frank Take

Spraying Poisons to Kill Backyard Ticks and Mosquitos Has Exploded. But Does It Work?


Mosquito Shield says it, on average, sprays every 10 to 17 days, some ‘4-6 more times than the industry average.’ (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

Business is booming for mosquito and tick spraying. Companies that specialize in this lucrative practice have been joined by lawn-care enterprises in the dumping, often in a willy-nilly fashion, of ever more chemical pollution.

Mosquito Mary, Mosquito Mike, and Mosquito Joe (I’ve yet to see a Mosquito Frank) are making bank killing insects we depend on to pollinate the food we eat and the flowers we pick. The poisons they spray don’t target just mosquitos and ticks; they can kill indiscriminately, especially when applied improperly.

Market research shows the global mosquito control market was valued at $793 million in 2021 and is projected to reach $1.4 billion by 2027, according to a Georgia-based pest control franchise.

“Opening a mosquito-spraying business or adding it to your already established venture will let you join this growing market,” according to a GrassRoots’ promotional webpage. “Starting a mosquito-spraying business or adding a mosquito-spraying service to your existing business is a boon to both you and your customers.”

It’s not that for the natural world.

The ailments spread by ticks and mosquitos — Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, babesiosis, powassan, ehrlichiosis, West Nile virus, eastern equine encephalitis, and the Zika virus — can have grave heath impacts and should be taken seriously, but so too should our relentless spraying of poisons and our persistent use of toxic chemicals, such as per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS). These human-made concoctions saturate the planet, mixing with each other in ways we don’t understand.

The poisons used to kill ticks and mosquitos are part of a cocktail of chemical pollution, including lawn-care pesticides and fertilizers, that threaten the stability of global ecosystems upon which humanity depends, according to a 2022 study.

And does the dumping of all this poison even work? It depends on who is doing the applying and what is being sprayed, when and where.

In mid-May, my wife and I received a two-sided, glossy flier in the mail calling on us to “Stake your claim on outdoor fun!”

The Mosquito Squad mailer said its seasonally recurring service helps keep “those pesky mosquitoes and ticks away, so you can spend more time enjoying your backyard.” A “highly trained” technician would treat our yard every 21 days. The first treatment would cost $49.

Mosquito Squad of Rhode Island claims its most popular mosquito control treatment eliminates up to 90% of the mosquito population in your yard. It claims its bug-killing formula provides immediate and continuous 21-day protection.

A few weeks later, we received a Mosquito Joe mailer telling us to “make memories without mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas.” It featured a photo of a small dog, wearing a green Mosquito Joe shirt, flanked by a young girl giving the smiling pet a kiss and a younger boy providing a hug. They are all sitting on the lawn.

The glossy, two-sided flier claimed its “customized treatments are built for your unique yard and will keep your family and pets itch-free for 21 days.” The first treatment would cost $49.

Mosquito Shield, a residential mosquito control company, says it, on average, sprays every 10 to 17 days, “a proven and effective approach that has us spraying 4-6 more times than the industry average.”

In 2020, the 50-year-old lawn-care franchise Weed Man expanded its service offerings and launched Mosquito Hero.

Rhode Island’s foremost authority on ticks, University of Rhode Island professor Thomas Mather, calls residential tick control “kind of a Wild West show” filled with nonspecific answers about what applicators are spraying and how often, and if natural control products even work.

“People that use natural products don’t really know if it works, as far as I’m concerned, because it’s not regulated,” he said. “They don’t have to prove efficacy to say that they can do it.”

An acre test plot on the URI campus — created to resemble a shady yard — is used by Mather and his student researchers to test natural tick control products. He and his team have tested nearly two dozen commercially available products. These natural products have shown limited success in killing ticks.

“They all advertise that they kill ticks. But when we did them in a single spray compared to a single spray of synthetic pyrethroids, most of them didn’t achieve a very high kill of blacklegged ticks,” Mather said. “Now, some of them argue that’s why we go five times, well, by the fifth time if you go every other week, nature has already kind of killed those ticks off. So it looks good, right?”

Mather said these companies often prey on what people don’t understand about ticks. He noted cedar oil and garlic oil don’t kill or keep ticks away.

“I know, as a tick biologist, you only have to kill ticks once and then, you know, it’s not like mosquitoes that can fly back in from outside. And if you kill the nymphs in the summer, they won’t be there to turn into adults in the fall,” said Mather, who serves as director of URI’s Center for Vector-Borne Disease and its TickEncounter Resource Center.

He said in the first year a homeowner may want to have a few treatments applied, but once you get started there is no need to have multiple sprayings every year.

In fact, when it comes to what works best in backyards to control ticks, it’s likely guesswork. Few if any of the businesses that spray for ticks check first to see if any parasitic arachnids are even present, if there are what species are they, and where are they on the property, according to Mather, whose research focus is on tick ecology, area-wide tick control strategies, tick-bite protection, and tickborne disease prevention.

To find out what works and what doesn’t, URI scientists, including Mather, are looking for Rhode Island homeowners who will be doing some form of residential tick control this spring or next — be it sprays, granules, or host-targeted control professionally applied or do-it-yourself. The goal of the multiyear project is to determine if the tick control homeowners apply is helping reduce the number of ticks in their yards.

The home visits are held in June, the peak season for tiny nymphal blacklegged ticks. Blacklegged ticks, or deer ticks, are the carries of Lyme disease. Researchers will make property visits to check for ticks — all species known for the area — and they will test those ticks for pathogens. Investigators will also try to recruit neighbors during the visits to compare treated and untreated yards in the neighborhood.

The URI project is part of partnership of seven regional colleges and universities that has launched Project ITCH (Is Tick Control Helping?) to determine best practices for residential tick control in the six New England states.

The chemicals most often sprayed to kill mosquitoes and ticks are synthetic poisons known as pyrethroids. More than 1,000 pyrethroids have been developed, but less than a dozen of them are currently used in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Mather has had pyrethroids sprayed on his property to control ticks since he moved to Rhode Island in the mid-1980s.

Some companies do offer natural mosquito- and tick-killing treatments using a naturally occurring mixture of chemicals found in certain chrysanthemum flowers. Pyrethrum was first recognized as having insecticidal properties circa 1800 in Asia and was used to kill ticks, fleas, and mosquitos. Six individual chemicals have active insecticidal properties in the pyrethrum extract, and these compounds are called pyrethrins. Pyrethrins can be released naturally from chrysanthemum flowers, but these releases are tiny compared with the amounts used as commercial insecticides.

Mosquito and tick killing products that are organic will feature an Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) seal. The Eugene, Ore.-based international nonprofit assures the suitability of products for certified organic production, handling, and processing.

Pyrethroids — the first one, allethrin, which is highly toxic to fish and aquatic invertebrates, was invented in 1949 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — are manufactured chemicals that are similar in structure to pyrethrins, but are often more toxic to insects, and mammals, and last longer in the environment than pyrethrins.

Concentrated pyrethrins and pyrethroids are usually mixed with carriers or solvents to produce a commercial-grade formulated product, according to the CDC. These formulated products contain inert ingredients that can increase their toxicity.

By law, the active ingredient must be identified by name on the pesticide label and its percentage must be provided. Nonactive ingredients — sometimes called inert ingredients — don’t need to be identified by name, just the percentage of nonactive ingredients must be specified, so it can be difficult to determine what other chemicals are included in the final formulated product.

In air, all six of the pyrethrins and many of the pyrethroids are broken down or degraded rapidly by sunlight. Often, they last only one or two days before being degraded, according to the CDC.

Steven Alm, a professor of entomology at the University of Rhode Island, noted both synthetic pyrethroids and botanical pyrethrins can be toxic to bees and other pollinators. They will kill whatever insects they land on, he said.

They are both safe to pollinators once the poison has dried and sunlight begins to break them down, so the number of non-target species killed by spraying depends, to a large extent, on the training and skill of the applicator.

Alm said if an applicator isn’t trained or aware to avoid flowers, for instance, it could cause environmental harm, especially to bees, lady beetles, and other beneficial insects.

Before any pesticide product the Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t exempted from registration requirements can be sold or distributed, the federal agency performs a scientific assessment that results in a registration decision. Under this review, EPA evaluates the product’s active ingredient(s), other constituent substances, including inert ingredients, and the proposed use to ensure that, when the product is used according to labeled directions, no unreasonable adverse effects on human health or the environment will occur.

Once an EPA registration has been granted, applicants then need to comply with the individual registration requirements imposed by the states in which they wish to market their product.

The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management requires certification for commercial applicators. The agency also used to require formal training, but that is now optional. DEM does require that commercial applicators pass an examination, which is based on federal regulations regarding the types of pesticides they will be using.

To maintain state certification, DEM requires private applicators take six hours of recertification training every five years. Commercial applicators must take eight hours of recertification training every five years.

When DEM originally created the state’s pesticide safety program in the late 1970s, training was required. But about seven years ago someone challenged the requirement, and after reviewing the matter, state officials found it to be unenforceable because there was no statutory basis for the agency to require training, according to Michael Healey, DEM’s chief public affairs officer.

Alm has noted this lack of training is concerning.

Mather noted effective spraying for ticks should be concentrated along a lawn’s edge, where leaf litter has collected. He said ticks prefer moist, shady areas, like under ground-cover plants and around stone walls and woodpiles, not sun-drenched lawns. Spraying flowers for ticks is useless and harmful, he added.

Spraying leaf litter, however, can also prove fatal for beneficial insects, especially decomposers such as beetles, ants, and earwigs.

Mosquito and tick spraying typically happens during business hours, say, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., in daylight when pollinators are active and most mosquitoes are resting.

“There are some mosquitoes that are out during the day, but definitely, the vast majority of the chemical that’s being sprayed in your yard is not touching the mosquito — it’s not doing what it was meant to do — it’s just contaminating your yard and it potentially could be killing any number of beneficial insects that are in your yard, including bees, butterflies, beneficial wasps, many insects that are actually eating and killing pests in your yard,” Aimee Code, pesticide program director for the Portland, Ore.-based Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, told ecoRI News in 2021.

She noted another shortcoming of the chemical approach is that when it comes to mosquitoes they are mobile, flying into yards that have been sprayed and replacing those insects that were killed.

“Just because you’re spraying your yard, mosquitoes can still move in after that chemical settles out and they’re going to still bother you,” Code said. “It’s a very short-term, shortsighted fix.”

Alm said one of the best ways to control a mosquito population in your yard is to make sure there is no standing water in garden pots or in a decorative wheelbarrow. A bird bath or a rain barrel without netting also offer mosquitos a place to reproduce.

Frank Carini can be reached at [email protected]. His opinions don’t reflect those of ecoRI News.


Join the Discussion

View Comments

Recent Comments

  1. Needed as a counter are a plethora of Mosquito Moe, Mosquito Larry, and Mosquito Curly signs.

    Maybe then the message would sink in.

  2. I face a dilemma having been bitten by a tick and contracting Lyme and babesiosis and enduring a long hospitalization.
    I most certainly don’t want to repeat that regimen but I have problems with how to rid my property of ticks . I have a large koi pond and don’t want to kill my fish and a large flower garden that needs pollinators so what is an effective solution to ridding my property of ticks. I found one on my body on Monday and had a panic attack fortunately I wasn’t bitten.
    Is their a solution to my dilemma shirt if staying indoors all the time?

  3. I use Yaya brand “Tick Ban” spray around my feet and ankles if I’m going outside in the yard for any period of time or walking at a park, etc. It works great! I made a pet-safe spray blend when I had a dog which worked well, too. You can look up studies on what essential oils actually are effective against ticks like this one here – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28645519/ which notes, “Clove bud, creeping thyme and red thyme essential oils were the most efficient – repelling 83%, 82% and 68% of ticks when diluted to 3%, respectively. The mixture of creeping thyme and citronella containing 1.5% of each showed higher repellency (91%) than individual essential oils at the concentration of 3%.” It’s obviously easier to buy a blend like Yaya Tick Ban (or similar), which has some of the oils from the study in it, than to make your own, but nice to have the option.

    To give you some context, I was bitten by a tick walking my dog in a cornfield in my early 20s in upstate NY. I didn’t notice it for over a day, and ended up with lyme disease. So I am not a fan of ticks, by any means. Adaptogenic herbs have been very helpful, but it still is no fun. My aunt was also hospitalized in Vermont last summer because a tick nymph got into her skin, developed subdermally, and had to be removed!

    Birds are great allies against ticks, and unfortunately they are being hit with all sorts of dangers to their survival: manmade development/habitat loss, increased noise & light pollution that messes with their mating and migration, deadly avian flus, and many other challenges. I can imagine if they ate insects that were treated with these chemical insecticides, there would be some negative impact to them as well, effectively harming one of our only natural solutions to the problem.

    This is the most important part of this article, imo: “both synthetic pyrethroids and botanical pyrethrins can be toxic to bees and other pollinators.” With the importance of pollinators and their decreasing populations, I think using a personal tick spray when you go outside is a wiser long-term solution. Unless you’re cool with not eating 1/3rd of the foods you currently enjoy that depend on pollinators, that is… not to mention, all the other ways the ecosystem would be effected by their loss. People often just want quick, easy fixes to everything, but those too, have consequences that we don’t always feel until later. Better to try to think things through before rushing into a quick fix; to take a wider view of how things connect in the bigger picture. In the words of Levar Burton, “but you don’t have to take my word for it.”

  4. It is inaccurate to state that mosquitoes are unaffected after the products dry and you should investigate who is and is not properly trying applicators. Your article has a lot of good information, but definitely some inaccuracies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Your support keeps our reporters on the environmental beat.

Reader support is at the core of our nonprofit news model. Together, we can keep the environment in the headlines.


We use cookies to improve your experience and deliver personalized content. View Cookie Settings