Sunday, May 5, 2019

A New Tick in Town

female longhorned tick Black flies bite, but ticks really suck. Enough complaining – that never helps.

After such a long winter, we are all grateful that spring has finally sprung, even though the price of warm weather seems to be the advent of biting insects. Swarms of mosquitoes can drain the fun from an evening on the deck, but a single black-legged or deer tick (Ixodes scapularis) can take the shine off an entire summer if it infects you with Lyme disease and/or another serious illness.

As recently as a decade ago in Northern New York it was rare to find a single deer tick on oneself after a long day outdoors. Now all you have to do is set foot in the brush to collect a whole set of them on your pant legs. Research has found that deer ticks were never here historically, even in low numbers, but moved-up from the mid-Atlantic states over the past few decades. Arguably they are an invasive species in Northern New York.

The newest tick on the block, however, is without question an invasive species. Native to Korea, Japan, eastern China, and a number of Pacific Island nations, it is known as the Asian bush or cattle tick (Haemaphysalis longicornis). It is also called the Asian longhorned tick, which is confusing because we already have Asian longhorned beetle. Plus, the bush tick has no long appendages of any kind.

In fact it is short on any distinguishing features. As Jody Gangloff-Kaufman of NY’s Integrated Pest Management Program writes, “Longhorned ticks are difficult to identify, especially in the younger stages. Adults are plain brown but look similar to brown dog ticks.” Tick identification services can be found here.

Closely related to our beloved deer tick, this Asian bush tick was discovered for the first time in the wild in North America in 2017 in New Jersey, where a pet sheep was reportedly infested with over a thousand of them. Since then it has spread to eight other states, including NY. Their high reproductive potential is one of the worrisome features of the species. They are all parthenogenic (asexual) females, meaning they churn out 1,000 – 2,000 eggs apiece without the bother of hooking up to mate.

Columbia News reported a good example of the new tick’s fecundity last December: When the Asian bush tick was first confirmed on Staten Island in 2017, surveys found their density in public parks was 85 per square meter. In 2018, the same parks had 1,529 per square meter.

Another concern is whether it is a vector of human and animal disease. In its home range, the bush tick is known to transmit a plethora of diseases including Lyme, spotted fever, Erlichiosis, Anaplasmosis, Powassan virus, tick-borne encephalitis virus, and severe fever with thrombocytopenia syndrome, similar to Ebola. As terrifying as this is, researchers have yet to find infected ticks in North America.

Experts disagree about the bush tick’s potential to spread illness. Dr. John Aucott, who directs the Lyme Disease Research Center at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center, has said that we should not extrapolate that because the bush tick carries serious illnesses in its home range, people here are at risk for the same diseases.

However, the deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s Division of Vector-Borne Diseases, Dr. Ben Beard, is quoted on the CDC website as follows: “The full public health impact of this tick is unknown. In other parts of the world, the Asian longhorned tick can transmit many types of pathogens common in the United States. We are concerned that this tick, which can cause massive infestations on animals, on people, and in the environment, is spreading in the United States.”

Right now the bush tick is downstate, but it is considered cold-hardy and will be heading our way. Though ticks only walk a few meters in a lifetime, they hitch rides on migratory birds. A study on deer tick range expansion led by Katie M. Clow of the University of Guelph in Ontario concluded that they are moving north at an average rate of 46 kilometers (28.5 miles) per year, aided by birds.

This isn’t to say we need to panic, though feel free to do so if you like. Avoiding this tick is done the same way we avoid deer ticks. Since ticks “quest” at the tips of tall grass or brush, waiting to glom onto the next thing that brushes past, hikers should stick to marked trails, and avoid following deer trails. Use products containing 20-30% DEET on exposed skin. Clothing, footwear and gear such as tents can be treated with 0.5% permethrin. Treat pets regularly with a systemic anti-tick product and/or tick collar so they don’t bring deer ticks into the home. Talk to your vet about getting your pets vaccinated against Lyme (sadly there is no human vaccine at the moment).

Check for ticks each evening after bathing. Ticks like hard-to-see places such as armpits, groin, scalp, sock hems, and the backs of the knees, so look closely in these areas. If you find a tick has latched onto you, prompt removal is critical. The CDC recommends you grasp it as close to the skin as possible with tweezers and pulling straight up until it releases. You may have to pull hard if it has been feeding for a while. Tick mouthparts commonly remain in the skin after tick removal; this is not a problem. Do not use home remedies to get a tick to release, as it induces it to disgorge back into you, greatly increasing the chance you may get sick.

Homeowners can help themselves. The CDC website states: “Maintaining a 9-foot distance between lawn and wooded habitat can reduce the risk of tick contact. Permethrin-treated clothing and DEET, picaridin, or IR3535 can be used as personal repellents. Follow all label instructions. Consult your veterinarian for recommendations specific to your situation and animals.”

Please keep yourself and your loved ones ticked off, and have a great summer.

Photo of Ventral view of female longhorned tick courtesy U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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A Canton, NY-based arborist, educator and writer, Paul Hetzler had intended to be a bear when he grew up, but failed the audition. He settled for an educator position instead, and serves as Horticulture and Natural Resources Educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine. He is the author of Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World.

You can reach Paul at the Cornell Cooperative Extension office in Canton at (315) 379-9192.




24 Responses

  1. Ellie says:

    Thanks for the update.

    A clever park ranger from tick-infested Long Island years ago suggested we wear knee-high rubber rain boots while gardening and also on low terrain hikes, (all of Long Island of course is low terrain)… Ticks can’t hold onto the smooth slick boot surface. When we were down there, that’s exactly what we did. Result? No ticks. Now, up here, we’ll be doing the same.

  2. James Marco says:

    Thanks! As always, I’ll be wearing permethrin saturated clothing when I am camping. Now it looks like I need to use it on ALL my cloths.

  3. Suzanne says:

    Unfortunately, most doctors refuse to believe that tick-related illness exists, testing is difficult and expensive even when one has good medical insurance, and complaining about one’s aches and pains does no good, as one is suggested that it’s all a figment of one’s imagination . . . (Are you happy at home? Are there problems with your marriage? There are good mental health facilities available here . . .etc., etc.) The shrink will bill your insurance $450. per half hour to tell you you’re depressed because, late breaking news, you’re not feeling very well. Been there, done that. Still achy. Put on those knee-high boots and slather on the bug spray.

  4. Todd Eastman says:

    The more covered you are with clothing, the less likely you will be to quickly find and remove the little bastards.

    Frequent tick checks are critical.

  5. David Thomas-Train says:

    Couldn’t agree more with Todd. I check myself more often and less nervously if I’m wearing shorts. Two weeks ago was hiking in southern Indiana fields in shorts and barefooted Tevas, checked myself every 20 min and was fine. The confinement and sweat of the tall sock, rubber boot, and cinched pants regime would drive me nuts and indoors forever.

  6. Boreas says:

    Why don’t they make a systemic tick collar for humans?

  7. Worth Gretter says:

    Good article, but two points to emphasize:
    1) Permethrin is the way to go. It is very effective. You either buy pre-treated outdoor clothing (good for 70 washes) or spray your own (good for 6 washes).
    2) Tick removal with tweezers is not as easy as it sounds. It is hard to find tweezers that are fine enough to grasp the mouth of the tick, and also strong enough to pull it out. The tweezers you have on hand are probably not going to do the job.

  8. James Marco says:

    Ha, hay… Good Idea Boreas! Actually they do. But, they call it bracelet of some sort. It doesn’t work except on the one arm. https://www.amazon.com/Simple-Natural-Products-Mosquito-Repellent/dp/B01HITQENC
    I am guessing you could clip a couple together for a dog collar. (No, I won’t tell your wife…the one with the whip.)

    • Boreas says:

      James,

      They are just citronella- infused plastic. OK for the average skeeter or two around the campfire but beyond that, pretty worthless. Ticks would pay them no mind.

      • James Marco says:

        Yeah, they don’t do much. I thought it might lighten the topic a bit. New bugs. New(ish) diseases. Using lethal general pesticides rather than bio-specific ones. And so on…people get inured to 100% tragedy.

        • Boreas says:

          James,

          I appreciated the levity. Time to put out a new batch of Tick Tubes…

          • Worth Gretter says:

            I have thought of doing tick tubes around my yard but haven’t done it yet. How are they working for you?

            • Boreas says:

              Worth,

              Well, ya kinda have to go on faith. I have plenty of mice, but whether they are tick-free or not would take some work to find out. The key is trying to find places to put them that are sheltered from weather but not inclined to ATTRACT mice looking for nesting material – like your garage. I basically put them around the perimeter of my yard and a shed where I always have mice.

              FWIW I did notice after I put them out last year, several tubes came up empty, meaning the something took the permethrin treated cotton and used it for something. There are many YouTube videos on how to make your own. At about $3/tube, the commercial ones are outrageously expensive, especially when you are supposed to replace them every 6 months.

              • Worth Gretter says:

                Thanks for the info! I gathered the materials to make some tick tubes, but I haven’t done it because my permethrin yard-work clothes have been so effective! Still thinking about it, though.

            • Paul Hetzler says:

              I have come across several mouse nests composed entirely of treated cotton balls. Pretty much all the tubes get emptied out. If squirrels or other rodents are using the cotton for nesting, that is important too.

  9. Vanessa says:

    Went on a rainy hike in Western MA on Saturday, thought to myself, “nahhh tick worries are overblown.”

    Came back to shower, and look who’s latched on at my waistline! Was wearing 2 layers plus raincoat, so no idea at all how he got there. Luckily, tweezers did the trick and he hadn’t really gotten too much of me. Definitely a deer tick, but since I removed right away I’m not super worried.

    Even so, a familiar moral to this story: it could happen to any of us :/

  10. […] Black flies bite, but ticks really suck. Enough complaining that never helps.After such a long winter, we are all grateful that spring has finally sprung, even though the price of warm weather seems to be the advent of biting insects. Swarms of mosquitoes can… Read More […]

  11. James Marco says:

    I am somewhat worried about permethrin. Today it works very well. As I said, I use it on my camping/hiking cloths, sleeping bag. It does not do to well with all fabrics. Poly does not take up as much as nylon. Nylon doesn’t take up as much as cotton. But the quantity in each fabric is enough to kill blackflies, ticks, and mosquitoes.

    But, with more widespread use, will it continue to work? Or are we in another DDT situation where the bugs began breeding resistance and the quantity needed to overwhelm them became toxic to the environment?

    And, I see that the instructions listed on most products are very incomplete. They rarely mention safe disposal techniques. “Spray and let dry.” They don’t say anything about a rinse, or what to do with rinse water. UV will neutralize it. You cannot just dump wash water because it goes through a sewage plant unchanged and is very toxic to fish, aquatic animals (including insects,) amphibians, some reptiles and cats. A wide, flat pan left in the sun will destroy permethrin. (Or, pouring on your blacktop driveway in summer.) Or using excess as spray around the foundation of your house.

    But, for now, permethrin is about the best to use on any outdoors clothing. Even if a tick climbs between your body and permethrin treated cloths, it will be killed. Once the tick is exposed, it will not bite, anyway.

    Dipping is perhaps the best method. a 2% solution of permethrin can be diluted four times to reach 0.5%. So, a quart of garden pesticide becomes a gallon of solution. Wet the cloths first, then put them in a 5gal bucket for 5 minutes. Wring them out and air dry them (this step “sets” the permethrin in the cloths.) Rinse in clean water in a 5 gallon bucket. Excess should be disposed of as above. Wring them out, then launder them normally. Permethrin was used by the military in Viet Nam, so, there is a long history of use by people.

    Unfortunately, it is NOT a repellant, except in the sense that any living thing will tend to preserve it’s life. It takes a little longer than the time it takes a mosquito to bite. So, you still need some approved repellant for exposed skin. It does work well for blackflies, though. Gone are the nasties crawling through your collar, cuffs, buttonholes, etc. It will not prevent them from crawling in your ear, though.

    • Boreas says:

      My problem is I wear a lot of different clothes for different conditions. I treat my socks, pants and shoes, but it seems I spend as much time treating clothes as I spend in Tickland . I am thinking of getting a hemp or cotton belt that I can soak with permethrin since the waistline seems to be very critical. Or perhaps a lightweight coverall that I can saturate.

      I have a feeling tertiary Lyme disease (neuropathy and arthropathy) is going to become the next big health concern for the elderly.

      • geogymn says:

        I have a distinct set of hiking clothes, three sets actually. Went with the Permethrin soak method. I do a lot of spring time hiking (leeks, Morels) and have a growing confidence with Permethrin, albeit it is probably killing me in ways that haven’t discovered yet.

  12. David Gibson says:

    Thank you, Paul. Most informative. I find pulling up a tick with tweezers is not best approach to removing a tick with its mouthparts intact. Better way: use a small plastic forked tool (from your veterinarian) slipped under the tick’s body and then slowly rotated counterclockwise (without pulling) will release the tick from its hold on you and best guarantee the mouthparts are not left in your skin.

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