Know Your Enemy

“Ticks Are Very, Very Dirty Organisms”

An Entomologist Talks Ticks

Ticks are prehistoric, as old as horseshoe crabs. They have antifreeze in their blood. They’ve survived the Ice Age. They’re not going away, said entomologist Blake Dinius recently. However, “We have 100% complete control over whether a tick bites us,” he said as he outlined preventative measures.

The bacteria that cause Lyme disease have been in existence as long as the deer tick and can only survive in that specific tick. There is more than one bacterium that causes Lyme, and there are at least two other diseases — anaplasmosis and babesiosis — carried by the deer tick, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Erlichiosis and alpha-gal, the newly-discovered “meat allergy” disease, are carried by the Lone Star tick. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is carried by dog ticks, also known as wood ticks. According to the CDC, Alaska and Hawaii are the only two states with low-to-almost-nonexistent rates of tick-borne disease.

Lyme disease is found from Pennsylvania up the coast to Maine, with another pocket of disease around Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. The highest concentration of cases is in Massachusetts and Connecticut. According to Dinius, a deer tick in these states is 50% likely to carry Lyme bacteria. Developments tucked into the woods have fragmented animal habitat, putting humans in close contact with the conditions in which ticks flourish.

Deer ticks can be controlled by eliminating deer, but it must be a complete elimination of the herd. Islands where the entire deer population can be eliminated are the only locations that have succeeded in eradicating ticks. The State of New Jersey tried culling their deer population by half, but the cull had no effect on the tick population.

“Targeting deer is not the best bang for your buck,” Dinius joked.

When a tick bites you, it sticks its head into your skin, damaging the tissue in your epidermis. It then spits anticoagulants and pain reducers into you, so you won’t feel it and your blood won’t clot. Disease bacteria migrate into our bodies via the tick spit. “It continually sucks and spits into your body over the course of seven days,” Dinius said, unless, of course, you find and remove it.

If you find a tick on yourself or someone else, remove the body with tweezers and place it in a zip-lock baggie on which you write the date. Do not remove the tick with gasoline or matches; those techniques have been demonstrated to cause the tick to spit.

Both Dinius and medical professionals say not to worry about getting the head out. The body is where the bacteria live, so once you separate the body and the head you’ve eliminated disease risk. The head is almost impossible to get out, thanks to a barbed surface. Your body will respond to the head like it responds to a splinter. Just keep an eye out for infection.

You can take a photo of the tick and send it to Tick Encounter (tickencounter.org) at the University of Rhode Island; their free service will identify the tick for you. Should disease symptoms develop, your doctor will appreciate knowing what kind of tick it is as different ticks carry different medical risks, Dinius said. Photograph the tick bite and rash, if one appears, for the doctor also.

If you want more information, you can send the insect to Tick Encounter for testing. Their labs will create a detailed report of the specific bacteria found in the tick for a solid idea of the disease risks it carried. The report costs about fifty dollars.

“No protection method is 100%,” Dinius said, “although you can get pretty darn close.”

So how do we have complete control over whether a tick bites us? By knowing where they are found. In spring and summer, ticks will be near the ground, roughly ankle-height. Dinius recommends tucking pant legs into socks while walking in the woods, to prevent a tick from latching onto your ankle. In the fall and winter, ticks will be higher up, about two and a half feet high in shrubbery.

In yards, 88% of ticks are found less than ten feet from the forest edge, Dinius said. They require moisture to survive and will hide in damp groundcovers and log piles. They won’t survive on your lawn if there’s no moisture, and they can’t infest your house. The entomologist advised a perimeter yard spray of bifenthrin in early May, early June and late September. Bifenthrin has a 90%-100% tick reduction rate.

Except for Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus, Dinius does not endorse natural products. They’re not tested by the Environmental Protection Agency and have no effectiveness data. He believes most of them may not be reliable and may be a waste of money. Lemon Eucalyptus oil has, however, been approved by the EPA.

Dinius treats his own clothes with permethrin and recommends it for everyone. Permethrin both repels and kills ticks, working effectively through six washings or approximately one month. According to him (and the EPA), the substance is safe for infants, children and pregnant or nursing mothers.

He also suggested repellants such as DEET, picaridin and IR-3535 (found in Avon Skin-So-Soft), which he said are effective and make you invisible to ticks. Maximum efficacy for these repellants is found in a 25%-30% concentration.

“You can walk through the woods like Superman, no ticks can touch you,” the entomologist said.

Motto: “Weirdness is magic turned inside out with the label showing.” Mark Feeney, Boston Globe 11/26/20.

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