May is Lyme Disease Awareness Month! Lyme disease is a bacterial infection spread from the bite of a tick infected with the bacteria. Unfortunately, Lyme disease and several other tick-borne diseases have been increasing in New York through an increase in tick numbers, a warming climate and humans coming in contact with them.
Fortunately, not all ticks are a health threat to humans. There are an estimated 1,000 named species of ticks worldwide and about 100 in the United States, of which approximately 20 are a major public health concern or of veterinary importance. The three most common ticks in New York are the American dog tick, the lone-star tick and the blacklegged tick, often called the deer tick, which carries Lyme disease.
Ticks are classified as ectoparasites, which are parasites that live on the outside of the host. They do not jump, fly or drop from trees, but instead hold on to vegetation with their back legs and wait with their front legs stretched out for a host to come by. Most ticks are found either on the ground or on plants up to 18 inches off the ground. Once on a host they crawl upwards, seeking an ideal place to attach and start feeding.
Once attached, ticks produce a cementing agent in their saliva and can feed up to a week. During this time they produce proteins to keep the area from being inflamed or painful. The tick only inserts its mouthpart, which acts like a straw, into the skin to draw blood from the host. Should the mouthpart break off during removal it is considered to be no more dangerous than a splinter. However, there is concern for leaving the head if embedded or if the attached tick is not properly removed. Once a tick is removed, it should be saved by either freezing or placing it in alcohol for future identification if a tick-borne illness is suspected.
Many people incorrectly believe that ticks are only a pest in the summer. Ticks are active year-round; however, they are less active when temperatures drop below freezing.
The control of ticks is the responsibility of the homeowner — unlike the control of mosquitoes, which is usually considered a municipal responsibility. Research has shown that tick exposure usually happens in your backyard more often than at a park or natural area. Hunters and those working outdoors need to be aware of their potential exposure to ticks.
Blacklegged ticks (deer ticks) have a two-year life cycle. Blacklegged tick nymphs (young ticks) are most active in the spring, with adult ticks most active in the fall. Blacklegged ticks prefer the cool, humid woods, but will survive and seek a host in shadier tall grass and even lawns. While your lawn is relatively low-risk, ticks can be found there, so keep tick protection in mind.
A recent study, conducted in New Jersey and published in the Journal of Medical Entomology, examined whether raking leaves from the yard into the forest edge would increase the number of nymph ticks. The study found an increased risk of encountering deer tick nymphs where there was an increased accumulation of fallen leaves from both raking and blowing the leaves in the fall. The article recommended reducing the risk of exposure by using curbside pickup where available, composting the leaves either in an active composting site or through composting services, or requesting lawn and landscape contractors remove collected leaves rather than concentrating them along the lawn-forest edge.
In 2017, the New York State Senate task force on Lyme and tick-borne diseases funded New York State Integrated Pest Management to create a tick outreach and education program titled Don’t Get Ticked New York. More information about ticks, their habitats and life cycles, and how to prevent and manage them can be found at blogs.cornell.edu/nysipm/tag/dont-get-ticked-new-york. Also, county public health department websites have information posted about ticks.
Being tick-aware and checking for them when returning from the outdoors is the best way to prevent Lyme disease. As with many diseases, treatment is more effective if diagnosed early. Yet early symptoms can be confused with other diseases, which is why learning how to protect yourself, your family and pets from ticks is critical.
Having a better understanding of ticks and their habitat will allow us to continue to enjoy the outdoors, whether exploring a local park and our backyards, or just enjoying nature. Take a few minutes to become aware of any potential exposure to ticks and the next steps if exposed.
Judy Wright is the senior agriculture specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Seneca County. For more information, visit senecacountycce.org or call (315) 539-9251 ext. 109.