This holiday season has proved full of surprises. From the leaking roof to two fender benders in one day (ice-related and amazingly not my fault) to the exploding gingerbread (trust me – the oven will never be the same), life’s lesson plan this season seems stuck on “disaster” of the sort that’s only comical after bolting back a few cups of eggnog. It’s been a season of going with the flow, sometimes while clinging to an upside-down canoe.
Given the pattern, I really should have been prepared for anything from earthquakes to temporary paralysis. Nevertheless, I was rendered nearly speechless when I crawled under the Christmas tree to add water, and I found the floor underneath the tree littered with what appeared to be ticks. There were dozens of them. Meandering around, looking bewildered and hungry, slowly spreading out across the living room. Ticks . . . you gotta be kidding me!
I wish I had a photo to show you, but frankly I pulled out the vacuum cleaner faster than Wyatt Earp at the OK Corral. And then I reached for the tick spray and gave that tree the dose of a lifetime. In a couple of days, my house would be full-to-bursting with houseguests, and my organic sensibilities were overrun by the fear of spreading a little Lyme Disease with my Christmas cheer!
The next day—after one more pass with the vacuum—the problem seemed to be under control, but it was quite a while before I found the time to face (and to learn about) what had happened. I’d never heard of ticks being in a Christmas tree, but, as my life has proved over and over, anything’s possible.
Meet the Cinara Aphid
Before you become infected with my panic and throw your Christmas tree on the curb, I’d better hurry up and clue you in on the punch line – it turns out they weren’t ticks at all. In fact:
- Ticks don’t live in trees, and they don’t lay eggs in trees. They dehydrate too easily, so they stay closer to the moist ground. They aren’t found in Christmas trees, period. But they can lay dormant in piles of leaves and survive the winter.
- Ticks need live animal hosts, so it would be impossible for them to multiply and infest a tree without a food source. It doesn’t fit with their life cycle or habitat.
- Ticks spread by clinging to and falling off hosts – they don’t swarm or form colonies. A common misconception is that ticks jump from one host to the next, but that’s simply not true. They actually use their third and fourth pairs of legs to stick to one surface (which could be a leaf, for instance), and stretch their first pair of legs, always ready to latch on to the host (which, unfortunately, could be your dog).
While tree growers look for infestation, it can be difficult to spot on a large farm.
So what CAN multiply and infest a tree? Cinara aphids, also known as Conifer aphids, that’s what. Here are a few facts about the little critters:
- They’re harmless. That’s right, harmless. They feed on trees, not animals, and they don’t bite or carry diseases. For us humans, they’re nothing more than a nuisance.
- As I can testify, they look almost exactly like ticks, with their brownish-black, flat, round bodies and short legs. The dead giveaway, though, is that Cinara aphids have only six legs, while ticks have eight. You can see what they look like at BugGuide.net.
- They even leave a purple-red smear when you smush them (believe me, I smushed plenty of them).
- They feed on trees and infest pines, firs, and other conifers, making Christmas trees vulnerable.
- They can infest only one tree in a large area, so the tree grower may not know about them.
Aphids are no match for the vacuum – just be sure to throw away the bag.
What If My Tree Has Aphids?
If you’re like me and unknowingly bought a Christmas tree infested with aphids, not to worry! It really isn’t that difficult to deal with them. Try these tips:
- Shake your tree before bringing it inside, to dislodge as many as possible. You can also rinse your tree with mild soapy water and allow it to dry outdoors. Aphids are soft-bodied insects that are easily washed away.
- If your tree is badly infested, don’t be afraid to take it back to the tree lot. The grower should identify and understand aphid infestation and exchange it for a healthy tree.
- Inspect trees before you buy them. Look along the tips of branches and also deep within the tree – the aphids move to more protected branches as the weather gets colder.
- Vacuum up any critters that make it onto your floor. I only found them right under the tree – they didn’t travel far, and most of them were dead or barely moving. They really were easy to control – my only panic was because I thought they were ticks!
- Don’t squish them – they’ll stain your carpet or floors.
- You can treat your tree using a room fogger or insecticidal soap, if you wish.
- Cinara Aphids on Christmas Trees in North Carolina (NC State University)
- Rogues’ Gallery of Post-Harvest Pests (NC State University)
- Pests on Christmas Trees (NC Christmas Tree Association, PDF 144kb)
- Insect Pests on Christmas Trees (Iowa State University)
- Buy a Real Christmas Tree! (University of Florida)
- How to Select and Care For a Live Christmas Tree
- Christmas Tree FAQ