The weather right now is perfect for those of us looking to get outside and soak in the healing effects of a leisurely hike on a wooded trail, listening to the birds and breathing the fresh air. But a Zen-like therapy session can halt abruptly with a single sighting. What might wield this kind of power you ask? A tick.
Some of you just shuttered a bit in knowing acknowledgment. You know that feeling of dread when you sense the tickle of those little legs crawling up your arm, or when you innocently run your fingers through your hair and feel "something." These unsettling experiences might lead one to ask an important question: Do ticks actually play a beneficial role in the grand scheme of things or do these blood-sucking, disease-spreading-creatures simply exist to bring harm? The answer might be surprising.
Of the more than 800 species of tick found across the globe, (let that number sink in) only 90 are actually found in the United States. Even more surprising, in some areas of the country, less than 1% carry the bacteria (Borrelia burgdorferi) linked to Lyme disease. However, this number is over 50% in other areas, and because Lyme is only one of several life-threatening diseases spread by ticks, we should take seriously our safety when in tick-prone environments. But, since less time is spent on the positives of these little critters, let's start there.
Most common ticks in Virginia
(Clockwise from upperleft: Deer tick - Ixodes scapularis, Brown Dog tick - Rhipicephalus sanguineus, Lone Star tick - Amblyomma americanum, American Dog tick - Dermacentor variabilis)
*Note: The following images are not proportionally scaled.
We perceive ticks as the feeders, on our pets or on us, but ticks are also an important food source for some reptiles, amphibians, birds, and other woodland animals. Knowing that they are dinner to other animals should impact how we choose to control tick infestations in our own "habitats." One effective control animal used (where permitted of course) is the guinea fowl. They are incredibly entertaining, and they love to eat ticks, so it is a win, win. We can also help keep ticks out of our yards by placing wood piles and composting areas as far from the yard space as possible.
We perceive ticks as harbingers of disease, with images from history class swimming in our minds of the Bubonic plague … ok so that was the flea, but still, the mind can wander. Many are familiar with Lyme disease (carrier - deer tick,
Ixodes scapularis), Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (carrier - American dog tick,
Dermacentor variabilis), and more recently Alpha-gal syndrome (carrier - Lone Star tick, Amblyomma Americanum), to name a few of the more familiar tick-related diseases. As humans, we would love to wipe out all diseases, but the sad truth is that they are actually naturally occurring methods of population control. For example, weaker members of a deer population are weeded out by diseases and tick-borne diseases help keep in check populations of problematic rodents, like mice. The sad reality is that even disease plays a role in maintaining the balance.
Like frogs and other amphibians, ticks are indicator species and can give indirect information on the health of an area. A rise in tick populations might indicate a decrease in higher-level predators of small mammals. For example, ecosystems with thriving snake populations keep tick populations low by eating the mice on which the ticks are feeding. If snake populations are endangered, then there might be an increase in the tick numbers of the same area. Monitoring tick populations help scientists and conservationists monitor at-risk animal populations. Ticks provide important data when considering species protection.
With all of these positive tick truths, let's not forget (as if we could) that, while ticks may have some beneficial reasons for existing, the diseases they can carry pose a real and present danger to us and our beloved pets. It is important that we do our best to prevent acquiring these illnesses.
There are several steps you can take that will allow you to enjoy that calming time of renewal in nature and still protect yourself from tick-borne disease.
1. Try to walk in the middle of wider walking trails so that ticks can't easily hitch a ride.
2. Wear long pants and tuck them into your socks to keep ticks from latching onto your ankles.
3. Wear light-colored clothing so that stow-aways can be easily spotted and removed.
4. Check, check, and check some more. Thoroughly check your body for ticks immediately after being outside. Any clothing at risk of harboring a tick should be tossed into a hot dryer BEFORE washing. Ticks can survive a wash load but will quickly die in a hot dryer. Resist the urge to simply toss your clothes in the hamper.
5. Use a DEET product as added protection, but sparingly. Spraying your clothing, before going outside, and your shoes after returning, is 85% to 89% effective at repelling ticks.
6. Should you find a tick attached, the best and safest way to remove it is
immediately and with sharp tweezers. The sooner a tick is removed the lower the chance of contracting a disease. It is best to remove the tick within the first 24 hours. If concerned, please see your doctor.
There is no reason to let fear or aversion to ticks keep you from getting outside and enjoying nature. We need more of this kind of time, honestly. The more time we spend outside, the more we will be reminded of the benefits, and this can only lead to us all wanting to do more to conserve the natural world. No, thoughts of ticks aren't pleasant for most of us, and yes, a mild fear is understandable. But the next time you encounter one of these crawly critters, remember that they too are part of the greater system and play a role in keeping things in a healthy balance.
Want to do more?
If you have not been convinced by this piece, there is one more light to consider. Important research is always being done on ticks and you can help. The TickEncounter Resource Center (affiliated with the University of Rhode Island's Department of Plant Sciences and Entomology, Cooperative Extension in the College of Environment and Life Sciences) is the outreach arm of a program working to solve the tick problem locally and around the world. It promotes tick-bite protection and tick-borne disease prevention by engaging, educating, and empowering people to take action. You can help by sending them a tick you have encountered or sending photos of ticks in your area. Visit their website for more information on identifying ticks and to learn how you can help.
So, don't get ticked. Be a part of the plan.
TickEncounter Resource Center
Thank you to
CDC.gov for the images in this posting.