’Tis the Season for . . . Ticks?

By: Julie Day

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.
  • 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.

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.

Further Information



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25 Comments on “’Tis the Season for . . . Ticks?”

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  • Jason Hanenburg Says:
    January 10th, 2016 at 6:48 pm

    Wow, just searched these ‘bugs’ and found this site. We were just taking down tree, I reached in to pick up tree to move and squished about 10 aphids on my hand, Frasier fir purchased in Missoula, MT. Tree probably came out of Oregon. To say the least I’ll be doing a lot of vacuuming the next few days, anybody know if the aphids can lays eggs in carpet??

  • Donna Gibson Says:
    January 7th, 2016 at 12:56 pm

    I found dozens of these bugs next to a night light I used near the Christmas tree. The tree had been inside since 29 Nov 2015. I was afraid they were ticks and dragged it out to the curb last night. Frantic vacuuming of every nook & cranny & this morning MORE in the same spot. Had the pest control company come out and douse the house just in case! Pest control guy took samples of bugs I’d caught on packing tape in to have entomologist identify. If it turns out to be ticks, Lowes is going to have a very angry customer to answer to. Mine was also a fir tree, no idea where they came from originally, but I purchased it from Lowes in Walton County, Florida.

  • Connie Fayen Says:
    January 6th, 2016 at 9:08 pm

    We just had an explosion of these bugs in our house (in north central NJ) while we were away for a couple days. We came home yesterday afternoon to find them crawling on the floors almost everywhere in the rooms nearest the Christmas tree, and hundred of them crawling up and down the tree trunk. After extensive vacuuming, bagging the tree in plastic and removing it to the curb, and more vacuuming, we found only a few here and there today. An exterminator comes tomorrow to hopefully get rid of any residuals. The tree was a Frasier fir purchased in early Dec. at a nearby garden center. They stained when squished, so I mostly vacuumed them up and discarded the vacuum bag. I am so relieved they aren’t ticks.

  • kathie Says:
    January 4th, 2016 at 8:40 pm

    I attribute my bugs to the warm temps in SE Pennsylvania. I have ditched the tree tonight, washed my handmade tree skirt in hot water, vacuumed, took a shower and threw all my clothes and sneakers in the washer. There were some moving but many looked dead. I’m so hoping they were the aphids and not ticks.

  • Debby Says:
    January 1st, 2016 at 4:18 pm

    Our tree also came from North Carolina, we live in WI. This morning we came across the same scene, lots & lots of them heading across our floor like turtles going out to sea. The freakiest grossest thing. We ditched the tree, and have been cleaning. Please tell me they will die off and not get into other areas of the house.

  • Kathy Says:
    December 30th, 2015 at 3:26 pm

    We also had this problem this year. I’m so glad I found this article. The tree is gone (as of the 26th) and I have done nothing but clean and wash and clean more.

    I did find two of the little buggers upstairs also and keep looking for more… uggghhh

    We tried to contact the place where we purchased the tree but they don’t seem to care much.

    I am wondering how long it takes for them to dye off since the tree is gone? Also wondering if they bite?

    Until I find out, we will keep cleaning and vacuuming.

    Happy New Year to All!

  • Kathy Says:
    December 30th, 2015 at 12:45 pm

    OMG!!! Thank goodness I read this article. I was freaking out. Last night that started coming across the den floor like little turtles heading out to sea…and a sea of aphids they were. Unfortunately we stepped on alot of them before we even realized what was happening. They do stain…thank goodness we are in the process of wood floors!! We have vacuumed floors daily and now will use a fogger to make sure they are gone!!!

  • Liz Says:
    December 28th, 2015 at 8:47 am

    These Cinara aphids have been a nightmare. After vacuuming these aphids (from a Frasier fir from the NC mountains) multiple times a day, we are ready to get it out! Are there any precautions regarding disposal so that the aphids do not infest any local trees here in upstate SC?

  • James Says:
    December 27th, 2015 at 10:06 pm

    Like John said above,

    We got our tree from a tree lot but the tree came from North Carolina (live in GA). We are now dealing with this aphid issue as well as they are everywhere in the room where the tree currently resides. I was a bit nervous at first but glad to read these posts. Next stop, get the darn tree out of the house!

  • John Says:
    December 27th, 2015 at 12:08 pm

    I had the aphid issue this year, the tree was from North Carolina and purchased at Whole Foods. First time in my 10 years in Tennessee. I put one of the bugs on a white sheet of paper and got out the magnifying glass and only counted six legs, but the aphid did look like a large version of a tick before feeding. Our cat was laying under the tree with them and at first I thought he brought them in but there were so many,. and I could find none on him. I went looking for a different answer. Its been a very warm humid Christmas this year with temps in the 70’s. Normally the heat would be on ( dry air) so wondering if that was the cause them to hatch? The tree was up for two weeks when this occurred. Its the 27th so the tree is going out.

  • Nan Says:
    December 26th, 2015 at 8:58 am

    Thank you SO much for this article! I, too, thought they were ticks until I squished one in a napkin & it “squished” too easily. Mine appeared the day before 27 people were coming to Christmas dinner, with a dining table set up right beside the tree! We have had such a mild fall & winter, and the NC State article on rogue pests explained how this contributed to having these creatures. It’s reassuring to read that this is unusual, and we probably will never have this problem again. I don’t want to resort to an artificial tree! Thanks again for the info!

  • Angela Says:
    December 11th, 2015 at 5:01 pm

    Well – I have Lyme and its hell! Don’t take ANY risks unless you want to suffer – be denied help from drs and become chronically neurologically ill. Oh and Ticks to live ON trees- Don’t be mislead – Stay safe-

  • Clyde Says:
    December 10th, 2015 at 8:22 am

    Having been infected with Lyme most likely acquired from contact with the pine trees at the foot of my yard, my only real contact while mowing, I hadn’t considered that ticks or Stink Bugs (they awaken from dormancy in warm environments) can be imported into one’s home on a cut Christmas tree. Lehigh Valley Pennsylvania has many Lyme infections, deer populations and some Christmas tree farms, one 1000′ from my house. I don’t go into the woods behind the house except to collect berries in the late summer. I got mine in June. I do brush up against the largely pine tree woods when mowing. This has to have been how I got bitten. Penn State suggests shaking trees vigorously or hosing them down before bringing them into your house. DO NOT spray flammable chemicals! After my infections, no more risk-taking for me. I think I am free of the infection but the 2 years undiagnosed infection caused what appears to be lasting problems of joint pain flare ups, severe balance problems, requiring partially effective three months rehab therapy twice. I worry about falling constantly. You really don’t want this Christmas gift.

  • Heather Says:
    December 9th, 2015 at 7:45 am

    Is there nothing I can do about these bugs other than live with them? No sprays to kill all at once? My tree has been up and decorated for a week and I’m just seeing them. It’s gross. I’ll be taking it down if there are no suggestions.

  • sharon davis Says:
    May 28th, 2015 at 11:40 am

    We have lived in lake villa Il for 25 years and never had such a problem with ticks. Its epidemic. I keep grass mowed and bagged. Dogs are toy dogs and are essentially house dog’s. We shampoo with flea tick stuff. And resorted to keeping their walls on gravel drive. Check daily. Does washer dryer kill them from dog bedding. Use dyson on rugs and floors. Any further suggestions.

  • su carpenter Says:
    December 18th, 2014 at 8:25 am

    Think I had ticks on a tree, now worried about the big tree I bought from a tree farm.

  • Linda Lane Says:
    November 26th, 2014 at 8:04 am

    Yes they do what do you think happens when a tick lays its 2000 eggs tbey hat and have to go somewhere they climb trees shrubbery, grass bushes lying in wait for theirvfirst host. It is not just animal host but humans.

  • joe Says:
    July 19th, 2014 at 5:13 am

    ticks live on woody plants, under bark, etc. To state that ticks do not live on trees is misleading.

  • Prof Says:
    July 19th, 2014 at 3:33 am

    Very misleading and untrue article. Tree ticks are very real and a health danger. Use Google to verify.

  • Sharon Says:
    February 12th, 2013 at 10:15 am

    We had a huge infestation of those little black bugs on the Christmas tree and they all hatched at the same time. Special! In trying to clean them out of the carpet, many were squished in. After three shampoo treatments, plus various spot-treatment with Simple Green, Spot-Shot and Follmers, the stains are still there. Help, please!!

  • Liz M Says:
    December 18th, 2012 at 11:35 am

    Our elderly dog goes outside only a few minutes a day, but lately we have found several ticks on her. She loves to stick her head in the Christmas tree. We got the tree in late November, and before that, no ticks on dog. How do we dispose of tree safely or get rid of ticks on tree? Thanks

  • Leslie g Says:
    December 8th, 2012 at 7:18 am

    Oh my !!! This exact thing happened to me. Last night i layer down under the tree to water it and i notice the bugs everywhere!!! I panicked . Ran and swept it up and sprayed everywhere. I definitely think they are ticks but now im not sure. I have an infant in the home and am so worried. Weird thing is I’ve had to tree for 2weeks and now is when these critters come out…

  • Lynne Says:
    December 6th, 2012 at 7:56 am

    I do not advise ever “smushing” a tick in an attempt to kill the pest. Dr Cecile Jadin, Johannesburg South Africa, her husband Dr Gerin and her father before her (also Dr Jadin) are the worlds best Rickettsial Research Physicians. A person can contract Rickettsia (blood borne pathogen found in ticks, causative agent for Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever) from the blood of “squished” ticks…Never risk this … EVER… Rickettsia, as with ALL Tick Borne Diseases, does not have a cure…

  • Claire Says:
    November 3rd, 2012 at 9:04 am

    We had a major infestation last Christmas, first dozens of the big fat ones came off the tree, followed by hundreds and hundreds of tiny ones, I’ve never vacuumed so much in my life!

  • Tia Says:
    October 12th, 2012 at 1:16 am

    Ticks CAN and DO live in trees, they can burrow into loose bark, etc. And there have been cases of lyme contracted from trees brought in for the holidays. I know of two people who got lyme this way. One in Oregon, one in Iowa.

    Ticks are active all year long, even in the snow. It would have to get to -17F (17 below zero)to kill a tick but they can still survive that temp if they are burrowed in. As with Christmas trees, once inside, they warm up and come out.

    I’m not trying to ruin anyone’s bright holiday but be aware. Lyme is a terrible, terrible disease that has taken decades of my life before finally getting diagnosed. Ticks also carry other infections.

    More detail, search for these sites: ILADS; LymeDisease.org

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