Ticked Off

By Paul Hetzler, Horticulture & Natural Resource Educator

Mosquitoes suck and ticks bite. But enough complaining—that never helps anything.

Despite the fact that it is snowing in the second week of May, we all know it will soon be milder. With that welcome change, however, will come the return of unwelcome visitors like blackflies, ’skeeters and ticks. Swarms of biting insects can take the fun out of a day of hiking or gardening, but a single deer tick can take the fun out of an entire summer if it transmits Lyme or other serious disease. Fortunately there is a relatively new tool in the battle against deer ticks: mice.

As recently as a decade ago in northern NY state it was unusual to find a single black-legged tick, commonly known as a deer tick, on your person even 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 socks and pants legs. Technically an invasive species in the north country, deer tick slowly moved up from the Mid-Atlantic and lower New England states. Based on anecdotal reports, there seem to be regional pockets where ticks are less prevalent than other places, but they are essentially everywhere in NY state now.

Ticks are arachnids, in the same category as spiders but way more dangerous. The deer tick is known to transmit Lyme disease as well as babesiosis, erlichiosis, anaplasmosis, Powassan virus and a few other serious illnesses. In fact it’s possible for two or more diseases to be transferred to people or pets by a single tick bite.

Our understanding of tick-borne illness has changed dramatically in the past two years. If you have literature older than 2014, throw it out. Tick literature, that is—save your other books. In July 2016, Dr. Nineva Zubcvic, a tick specialist who teaches at the Harvard School of Medicine, presented new information on the topic. According to her, the red, expanding “bull’s-eye” rash (erythema migrans), long considered the hallmark of Lyme, is rare, occurring in 20% of cases at most. Dr. Zubcevic also contends that Lyme tests are far less accurate than once thought, and that antibiotic treatments may need to be extended beyond three weeks.

In early 2015 the New York State Department of Health released a study conducted in northern NY the previous year. It found that between 50 and 80 percent of ticks in our area are infected with Borrelia burgdorferi, the spirochete bacterium that causes Lyme. This flies in the face of older (2013) information suggesting only about a quarter of deer ticks were infected. And researchers have just identified two tick-borne microbes (one in 2013; one in 2015) closely related to Borrelia burgdorferi which can also cause Lyme, or at least a variant of it. Unfortunately these newly identified pathogens do not show up on Lyme blood tests. While it was once thought that ticks did not transmit Lyme for several days, possibly as long as 72 hours, experts now say that you definitely have 24 hours, but beyond that is unknown. Other illnesses can be transmitted within minutes.

This isn’t to say we need to panic, though feel free to do so if you like. Let’s take action. Avoiding ticks is the first order of business. Ticks “quest” at the tips of tall grass or brush, waiting to glom onto the next warm body that brushes past. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend using products containing 20-30% DEET on exposed skin. Clothing, footwear and gear such as tents can be treated with 0.5% permethrin. Always follow label instructions!

Hikers, stick to marked trails, and never follow a deer trail. Treat your 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).

Shower and wash thoroughly every evening and then check for ticks. They like hard-to-see places such as the armpits, groin, scalp and the backs of the knees, so look closely in these areas. If you find a tick has latched onto you, 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 some time. Do not twist it or use heat, petroleum jelly or other home remedies to get it to release, as this can increase the chances of disease transmission. While it was once thought ticks did not transmit Lyme for possibly as long as 72 hours, experts now say that you definitely have 24 hours, but beyond that is unknown. Other illnesses can be transmitted within minutes.

Homeowners can clear brush, weeds and tall grasses from the edges of yards. Ticks like to hide out under leaf litter (which is why sprays are not effective against them), so maintaining a yard perimeter that’s raked clean can help discourage ticks.

Did someone mention mice earlier? Despite their name, deer ticks feed on—and infect—many wild critters, particularly mice. Apparently, deer do not carry Lyme; they are merely tick farms. In fact, our native and ubiquitous white-footed mouse is considered the primary vector of Lyme. This year, researchers from downstate are finding an average of 150 deer ticks per mouse, a significant spike from previous years when the number was closer to 25. It sounds logical, then, to wage war on mice. The problem is that if you trap or poison mice in your house or yard, all those ticks are going to drop off in search of another host. Yeah. So let’s put those mice to work for us.

It seems that giving mice new beds may be the most effective way to reduce tick populations around the home. When mice have access to permethrin-treated nest materials, tick mortality within that family is very high. If one was to treat cotton balls, dryer lint, and fabric scraps with permethrin, and then stuff said items into cardboard tubes (toilet paper, etc.) and leave these around the property, mice and other rodents would eventually find and use the treated bedding. The catch is that this may be a violation of NY State’s pesticide laws. Read the permethrin label carefully and see if you can make it work.

At present there is only one product registered for such use in NYS, so I won’t get in trouble by identifying it. Appropriately called Damminix, it is a ready-to-go mouse-bed distribution system. Treated cotton balls are already in tubes and you just put these around your home, garage, shed, woodpile, and any other likely mouse hideout. It costs a little more than the questionably legal DIY scenario described above, but it is a very small price to pay for a substantial reduction in tick density.

Early symptoms of Lyme disease can vary widely. Typically they include severe headaches, chills, fever, extreme fatigue, joint pain, and dizziness. But the first signs may be heart palpitations or confusion and memory loss, things once believed to occur only in late-stage Lyme. If you’ve been bitten by a deer tick and have any of these symptoms, see your doctor right away.

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


Contact

Paul Hetzler
Horticulture & Natural Resources Educator
ph59@cornell.edu

Last updated May 10, 2017