Top Tips for Ticks in Nature Play

A Parent’s Guide to Ticks In Australia with a Bonus FREE Fact Sheet

Meet Ixodes holocyclus. We love creatures, but this little bitty arachnid, commonly known as ticks, is not our favourite friend to meet when we play. Ticks generally spend their time hanging out in humid places like creeks, forests and bushy spots (so, pretty much the whole eastern coastline of Australia). It just so happens they like just the sort of places that we like to play in too!

tick, Australian tick, ixodes holocyclus, tick awareness, tick bite, tick treatment, nature play

We aren’t fond of ticks, but we have found the best thing to do when something worries us, is to find out more about it, so that we can figure out how we can play safely together. We’ve put together this fact check on ticks for you – and a handy guide to help you remember it all at the end.

What is a tick?

A tick is part of the arachnid family, related to spiders and mites. They can climb trees and bushes, and have an incredible ability to sense warmth from several meters away, so they have time to get themselves in position to drop onto another creature as it comes past. Most of the time this will be a wallaby, bandicoot or some smaller mammal. But sometimes it might be our pets, or even ourselves, as these very clever creatures wait for their meals in all the places we find fun to play in.

Adult tick with 2 dollar coin for size comparison.
Adult tick size comparison with a $2 coin. Image by O Levitt.

Why do they bite?

They feed on blood, and need two or three long feeds to move through their growth cycle. A long feed might be several days, and this causes paralysis in small creatures, and our pets. Luckily, humans aren’t as badly affected because we find them pretty quickly and remove them the moment they make us itchy! Ticks look for snuggly warm places to feed, so we tend to find them around ears, the hairline, necklines, armpits, waistline and groin.

Myth 1: Ticks only come out in summer

The tick season may vary in each state but here in Qld we start seeing small nymph ticks around late winter/early spring, continuing until early autumn. Ticks spend most of their life cycle in their immature stage as they do need several blood feeds in order to reach their mature stage in their life cycle. We generally don’t start seeing ticks in their larger, adult phase until around summer time.

Myth 2: Don’t worry, it’s only a bush tick!

The little ticks that we encounter are often called “grass ticks” or “bush ticks”, and because they are so small, people tend not to worry about them so much. Actually, there is no such species as a grass tick! The smaller ticks are juveniles of the Ixodes holcylus paralysis tick, and they can still cause some nasty reactions so we need to be wary of these little guys too.

Myth 3: It’s ok, I’m wearing a natural spray

Natural insect spray will be effective to repel mosquitos, midges and other bitey bugs, but sadly not ticks. They might notice that you smell really nice but what you need is a spray that has an active ingredient that will affect the tick’s system or kill it on contact before it has an opportunity to bite.

  • DEET is the only effective ingredient to repel ticks as well as kill on contact. Although it is approved for safe use on humans in Australia, we remain cautious and prefer to just spray it on our hats and outer clothing when we use it. If you don’t want to use this, you could try a spray with picaridin.
  • Picaridin is a synthetic compound that will repel ticks by disrupting their sense of smell. It won’t kill the tick but it will confuse it, which hopefully prevents it from biting. This product is safe for use on the skin and we carry this in our backpacks.
  • Peppermint, eucalyptus, lemon myrtle and lavender oil are not effective for repelling or removing ticks. Other insects, yes! But not ticks.
Nymph tick behind an infant’s ear. Image by C. Stone

Myth 4: the head of the tick might come off when you remove it.

Ticks don’t have heads, but they do have long mouth parts and sometimes these remain in the skin when you remove it. There are now lots of curious ‘tried and tested’ ways to remove a tick without leaving any part of it behind, but sometimes they can make things worse. One of these methods is to draw a circle around the tick with a soft cotton swab so that it comes out by itself backwards. This seems gentle enough, but its a lot of mucking around and it doesn’t work. Making a loop of cotton and pulling tight to yank the tick out is a lot of fussing about too. Dabbing essential oils on the tick to get it to withdraw from your skin will also not work, in fact they may aggravate the tick even more.

The idea is not to agitate the tick too much so that it doesn’t regurgitate any toxins into your system. Basically, anything you do to the tick could agitate it and cause it to release toxins. No thanks, let’s get this little guy out as quickly and swiftly as possible.

So, what do we do then?

Seems a bit doom and gloom, doesn’t it? Ticks hang out where we like to play, they bite and can cause reactions, they don’t react to natural sprays and they are tricky to remove!! Don’t despair, with a bit of preparation and awareness we can play outside safely. Here’s how:

  1. Prevention: Wear wide-brimmed hats, and sleeved shirts tucked into long pants and socks. Use a spray containing picaridin to repel ticks. A spray containing DEET on the outside of your hat is safe to use to prevent ticks from landing on you when they drop from branches or bushes.
  2. Awareness: Discuss play spaces with children and avoid really scrubby and grassy areas during tick season. Keep hats on! Check your children when they undress as ticks can stroll around on clothing for some time before finding a place to settle. Drying clothes in a high setting in the tumble drier will kill any ticks that are still wandering about in your laundry.
  3. Treatment: Freeze don’t squeeze! Ticks are easily removed if you can kill them first. For small ticks use Lyclear scabies cream (which contains permethrin). A pea sized blob will kill the tick on contact and then it can be safely removed with tweezers. For large ticks an ether spray such as Tick Off or Wart Off will freeze and kill it instantly, and then it can be removed with tweezers.
  4. Observe: watch for any symptoms. A hard, itchy red lump is a normal reaction and may last for a week or so. Nothing to worry about, its just annoying. Several of our families use homeopathic ledum to support immunity after a tick bite. Severe reactions are not common, but if you notice a large rash, fever, dizziness, numbness/paralysis or extreme swelling, then seek medical assistance straight away.

Prevention is the best way to avoid ticks, so if we dress appropriately, remember our brimmed hats at all times, and check our skin and hair when we undress, then we can play safely together.

Ticks, like many aspects of the natural world, are just one part of the ecosystem. With the right information and preparations, you and your children can embrace the outdoors with confidence. 

At Birdwings Forest School, our programs are designed to foster a deep appreciation for the great outdoors while ensuring your child’s safety. We’ve made this handy download for you to print that summarizes all these great points. Read on to download it for free.

Join us at Birdwings Forest School and let the adventure begin! Take a look at our exciting programs that provide unique and enriching experiences in nature. Join one of our workshops, where you can learn even more about coexisting with nature, from bushcraft skills, creative arts to environmental education. 

Now, about that download? You can get it here:

For more information about ticks in Australia, refer to

One thought on “Top Tips for Ticks in Nature Play

  1. Thank you for this! I will certainly pass this resource on as well as use it for my own program @camp.Udenfor!

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