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Black-legged ticks are naturally repelled by ant pheromones

Ant pheromones may hold the key to protecting outdoor enthusiasts from ticks, particularly the black-legged variety known to transmit Lyme disease, as they enjoy the spring sunshine.

Researchers at Simon Fraser University (SFU) are pioneering the study of these natural repellents, exploring innovative methods to mitigate the increasing risk posed by these dangerous arthropods.

Unseen risks of our outdoor seasons

Claire Gooding, a lead researcher from SFU‘s Gries Lab, highlights the ubiquity of tick encounters, especially during the summer’s peak outdoor activities. “Ticks are drawn to many of the same environments and seasons that we enjoy being outdoors,” said Gooding.

The team investigated the natural predators of the black-legged tick, including ants, spiders, and beetles. The researchers also explored the evolutionary adaptations ticks have developed to avoid these threats.

Chemical chatter: Ants as tick deterrents

Ants, known for their complex social structures, communicate extensively using a variety of pheromones.

“Ants are chemically noisy, making it easier to predict their presence,” said Gooding. This predictability is key in understanding how ticks perceive and react to these chemical signals.

Consequently, the research showed that ticks avoid areas once inhabited by ants, even after the ants have left.

“The ticks could sense where ants had been and would choose to steer clear, anticipating potential future encounters with ants,” noted Gooding. This avoidance behavior sparked the idea of using ant pheromones as a repellent.

Innovation at work

In collaboration with synthetic and analytical chemists, Gooding’s team successfully identified the specific pheromones and the ant glands responsible for their production.

They were able to create a synthetic version of these pheromones, which proved equally effective in repelling ticks. The implications of this discovery could be significant for both individual and environmental protection.

The SFU team, supported by industrial sponsors, has already filed a patent application for the repellent chemicals. The goal is to develop products for skin application, like mosquito repellents, and for environmental use.

For instance, these synthetic pheromones could be integrated with physical barriers, such as wood chips. This would create tick-repellent zones along hiking trails and camping sites.

A future free from ticks

As ticks continue to pose a growing health threat, partly due to their expanding natural ranges influenced by climate change, innovative solutions like these are crucial.

By harnessing the natural chemical language of ants, researchers are opening new avenues in pest management and disease prevention. This promises safer, tick-free enjoyment of the great outdoors.

More about black-legged ticks

Black-legged ticks, scientifically known as Ixodes scapularis, are commonly referred to as deer ticks. These ticks are significant vectors of diseases in North America, most notably Lyme disease, which they can transmit through their bites. They can also spread other serious illnesses such as anaplasmosis, babesiosis, and Powassan virus disease.

Life cycle

These ticks have a two-year life cycle and go through four life stages: egg, larva, nymph, and adult. Each stage requires a blood meal to progress to the next, except for the egg stage. 

Black-legged ticks are known for their preference for different hosts at each stage of their life, typically feeding on small mammals and birds as larvae and nymphs, and larger mammals such as deer and humans as adults.


The appearance of the black-legged tick varies: nymphs are very small, about the size of a poppy seed, while adults can be as large as a sesame seed, especially after feeding. Females are distinguishable by a reddish portion on their backs, whereas males are generally darker.


Black-legged ticks are most active during the warmer months, especially in spring and summer, but adults can also be active in the winter if the temperature is above freezing. They are primarily found in wooded, brushy areas, promoting close contact with potential mammalian hosts.


Preventive measures against black-legged ticks include using insect repellents, wearing protective clothing, performing regular tick checks after being in tick-prone areas, and managing landscape to reduce tick habitats near homes.

The study is published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.


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