Exploring The Last Green Valley: Take precaution against ticks

On Feb. 25, I went for a hike on one of our region’s land trust properties. It was a beautiful winter day. The February thaw was in full force and, with just traces of snow in the woods, the trail was easily passable with only a few muddy spots.

My hiking companions remarked about signs of an early spring, including several male redwing blackbirds that had arrived early to stake out their nesting territory.

 Later that afternoon, as I stepped into the shower to clean up, I noticed a black spot on my leg. A tick was happily affixed to the soft skin behind my knee and was looking forward to a nice meal of me! Thankfully, it had not been attached very long and was easily removed with tweezers and promptly dispatched to tick heaven.

This got me thinking about concerns with tick-borne illnesses such as Lyme disease, and the precautions we all must take when venturing outdoors.

If ticks are already opening up their blood-sucking shop in February, then we really need to be prepared for the hiking and outdoor recreation season ahead.

A good way to avoid tick bites is to first understand the enemy and the life cycle of the tick. Blacklegged or deer ticks have a three-stage life cycle beginning in the summer, when their eggs hatch as larvae. The larva needs a blood meal from a host before it can molt and become a nymph.

The nymphs are tiny, about the size of a poppy seed, and will spend the winter in soil and leaf litter before appearing in spring. Once a nymph successfully feeds on another host, it transforms into a larger adult and seeks a final blood meal to provide the nourishment and food necessary to mate.

If the larva or nymph feeds on an infected host, typically a deer or mouse, it will become a disease-carrying nymph or adult. Due to their hard-to-detect, tiny size, the nymphs cause most cases of Lyme disease. It takes a minimum of 24 hours before the tick can transmit the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, so time is of the essence when detecting and removing a tick.

The best precaution against ticks is it to wear a repellant when walking in areas where ticks are prevalent. While there are several types of insect repellants, those with DEET as the active ingredient are the most effective at repelling ticks

Start by spraying your shoes and socks, since your feet are the primary location where you’ll come into contact with ticks located in soil and leaf litter.

Adult ticks will climb up shrubs and tall grass in order to attach themselves to an unsuspecting passing host, so you’ll want to also apply repellant to your legs, arms and sides as an extra precaution.

Even better than a repellant, the most effective means of preventing tick bites is to wear clothing treated with permethrin that will kill the tick instead of simply repelling it.

You can purchase treated clothing from some outdoor supply stores and the treatment lasts for many washings. You can also purchase the product and treat your outdoor clothing yourself.

You should also be prepared and wear the right type of clothing when in the woods during tick season. Light-colored garments make it easier to see a tick that may be crawling on you.

I wear hiking pants of a smooth nylon fabric instead of blue jeans or canvas pants. The coarser weave of denim and canvas makes it easier for the tick to attach itself.

Be aware that ticks are tough, persistent little buggers and will find the smallest gap between your socks, shoes, pants and shirts.

Always check for ticks soon after leaving the woods. I check before getting in my vehicle or entering the house. I also try to shower as soon as practical after a woods ramble. Using a cloth on your body also helps remove the small nymphs that may go undetected to the naked eye.

If I find a tick, I use a needle-nose tweezer, place the tweezer just behind the head of the tick and gently pull until the tick releases itself. If you grab the tick by the body and pull it out you risk the chance of injecting yourself with more of the toxin that may be present in the tick. I use a Benadryl spray on the bite as soon as the tick is removed.

One of the important connections between ticks and the natural environment here in The Last Green Valley is their prevalence in habitat that is dominated by the invasive plant Japanese barberry.

According to a 2013 special bulletin by the University of Connecticut and the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, “Forest infested with barberry can adversely affect human and pet health because they have enhanced levels of blacklegged ticks (Lxodes scapularis), which are known to transmit the causal agents of several diseases including Lyme disease.”

Their studies have found that where barberry has infested a forest, there is a density of up to 120 ticks per acre that carry Borrelia burgdorferi – the causal agent of Lyme disease, compared to only 10 ticks per acre in forests without barberry.

The simple reason for this is that barberry, with its sharp thorns, is perfect habitat for mice – the most typical infected host of Lyme disease and a common blood food source for tick larvae and nymphs.

The sharp thorns and thick growth of the Japanese barberry protect mice from predators such as fox and owls. Where there is barberry, there are mice, and where there are mice there are ticks. It is interesting to note that the property that I hiked on Feb. 25 has lots of Japanese barberry in the understory.

For more information about preventing tick bites, I suggest you look into an excellent organization out of the University of Rhode Island called The Tick Encounter Resource Center.

The Center is dedicated to tick bite protection and tick-borne disease prevention and awareness, and has a great website full of helpful information at tickencounter.org.

Spring will be here soon and with it the urge to get outdoors and enjoy all we have in The Last Green Valley. I, for one, will make sure to protect myself as best I can from ticks and Lyme disease.

I will have my can of DEET insect repellant at the ready as well as my needle-nose tweezers. I will vigilantly check myself for ticks and will also look into treating my hiking clothes with permethrin as an extra precaution.

We live in a beautiful region full of amazing opportunities to explore the great outdoors. I hope you’ll join me as we care for, enjoy and pass on this wonderful place we call home, The Last Green Valley.

Bill Reid is chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for 35 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org.

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