Tick-Tock, Ticks are Hungry

How are you preparing for the season?

I know what you did last summer…about ticks.

It was late in the summer season, August 2020. My partner and I just pulled into the parking lot of Blydenburgh County Park (which I’ve written about before, if you’d like more of a description). The air was humid, so thick that we contemplated not even taking our standard 2-mi hike on the lakeside. Eventually, we grabbed our water bottles, left the car, and hit the trail. 

Photo by Alexandr Podvalny on Pexels.com

After a minute’s walk on the main trail, we began to pass the campsites — elevated wooden platforms, covered by overhangs, each with a picnic table and a nearby fire-safe area. A family (we presume), two women and four children between the ages of four and ten, were all seated on wooden benches, and looked to be having a picnic. While we walked past, the eldest-looking kid in the bunch jumped up from the table, tickled his sibling, and the two set out running into the nearby grassy undergrowth in the surrounding oak forest. 

“I hope they know to use tick spray,” I loudly sieved through my gaping, unfiltered mouth. One of the adults turned to me as a third child took off to play, and I nodded and my partner waved slightly, and we continued walking. It hadn’t been until this very moment that I realized — people may not know how important it is to be wary of straying from the marked trails and to be proactive with tick prevention.

The Stats are Serious

In Suffolk County, NY, ticks are more than an arachnid nuisance. Even with the establishment of the Tick Surveillance Program by the Suffolk County Department of Health in 2011, approximately 200 people contract Lyme disease in Suffolk each year. Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium that is transmitted through the bite of infected ticks, which typically causes fever, headache, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, a skin rash and, when untreated, can cause arthritis, swollen joints, facial and limb paralysis, and even death. It’s the most common vector borne disease, meaning a disease caused by a pathogen transmitted to humans by a vector, in this case the tick. (Lyme isn’t just an issue here on Long Island. Nationally, there are approximately 30,000 cases of Lyme reported to the CDC each year, but it’s estimated to be closer to 300,000, as the system of reporting is largely voluntary and requires health care providers to submit time-consuming records.) 

Photo by Erik Karits on Pexels.com

Ticks are also carriers for other diseases, which vary by species. While the Blacklegged Tick, or deer tick, is the “Lymey” culprit in Suffolk County, it may also carry other pathogens of the bacterium, protozoan, or viral variety, which can cause anaplasmosis, babeosiosis, tick-born relapsing fever, and Powassan Virus disease. Other ticks, like the Lone Star tick, causing ehrlichiosis, or the American Dog Tick, causing Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, are less common and less commonly carriers in this county. Suffice it to say, none of these diseases are desirable and tick bites should be avoided, recognized, and treated quickly and by all costs. 

It is important to note, the Suffolk County Tick Surveillance program has been largely effective at reducing the yearly average of known tick-born illnesses by half, from an average of approximately 388 confirmed cases of Lyme between 2000 and 2010 to an average of approximately 200 confirmed cases of Lyme between 2012 and 2018. (These statistics derive from the CDC’s confirmed case count, and it is presumed that the total number of Lyme cases could be as high as 10x the confirmed number, as sourced above.) 

May is Lyme Disease Awareness Month

A friend of mine contracted Lyme disease on a high school retreat about 15 years ago. He wasn’t aware that he’d been bitten, but he wasn’t what one would call ‘outdoors-y’. It wasn’t until he began to feel his knees aching and back sore that he went to a doctor, weeks later. The doctor found the infection through bloodwork, and only after eliminating other possible causes for alarm. He had no rash, but after being diagnosed, he remembered having had a low-grade fever. He was treated with antibiotics, but by that point, the infectious pathogen had spread to his joints, hidden away from medicinal reach, and his case became chronic. To this day, he still has flare-ups which are debilitating and largely untreatable. 

For more information on Chronic Lyme Disease, I recommend this site.

Tick Avoidance

As an avid hiker, tick avoidance is second nature, which is why I was appalled to see children romping through tall grasses, off-trail, in late summer, wearing shorts and tee-shirts. With even the best tick spray around, this was risky at best. Even the most cautious can pick up a tick with relative ease. 

Photo by Danielle Truckenmiller on Pexels.com

What to Do, and What Not to Do

  • Wear light-colored clothing, tuck in any loose ends, and be as covered as possible, long pants, high socks, closed-toed shoes, and sleeves preferred. Search for “tick wear” or “tick prevention clothing” online for more ideas. The cartoon caricature of the Scientist-Explorer skipping through the forest wearing khaki shorts is mythological. Don’t be the people in the next photo, wearing short shorts, but if you must, check often.
  • Use Tick Repellents as directed, liberally, and especially around knees and ankles. There are several tick sprays on the market. I prefer to be DEET-free and tend toward the Picardin-based repellents. Read the label carefully for application and reapplication directions, as DEET can be harmful and permethrin is designed for clothing only. Ticks commonly lounge on the tips of tall grasses bordering busy areas, waiting for the perfect animal to brush by for transfer. I focus on whatever parts of my body might brush against foliage and on well-traveled trails, that is usually only the legs. They can absolutely attach to arms, backs, necks, and heads though, so be mindful of using other strategies for avoiding them. 
  • Walk the center of trails, stay in marked areas, and read all of the signage posted and available. Certain areas of your local park may be off-limits during peak tick season, and local park rangers may have suggestions that pertain specifically to your area. 
  • Don’t wander off the trails and don’t stand in one place for too long. Ticks are attracted to carbon dioxide. As we exhale, they sense and move toward the source, knowing they may be near one of their blood meals, necessary for their survival. (Dr. Städele’s work studying tick movement and CO2 is fascinating and worth checking out.) — — Now that humankind is lessening its CO2 dispersal by wearing masks for disease prevention, I’m very curious to know whether the number of tick bites will be less this summer. Masks may very well become a recommended tick-avoidance standard.
  • Know the seasonal likelihood of ticks in the area. In areas where there are warm and cold seasons, the warmer seasons are cause for attention. In New York, the acceptable standard is March thru the first freeze. Like other bugs, ticks go through a lifecycle, typically hatched in the warming of spring and living as 6-legged larvae, then 8-legged nymphs, and then full-sized adult ticks. To grow from the size of a sesame seed to nearly an inch long in the adult stage, ticks need blood, usually from many different hosts, over the course of three years. The warmer the weather, the larger the ticks, the more likely they are to be pathogen carriers. 
  • Time is of the essence, so do tick checks often and act quickly when one is spotted. Once riding a host, ticks prepare for the feast. They crawl into warm, CO2-rich areas ripe for feeding. They then bite down, cut open the skin, and insert a feeding tube. They may use a sticky substance to stay attached to their host or an anesthetic substance to hide the bitten feeling. Preparing to feed can take 10 mins to 2 hours, then the actual feeding happens slowly over several days. During this period of time, ticks feeding on animals will pick up the pathogens that they will then infect the next host with. 
  • Tick check your animals too! In between paws, in the canine jaw line, and hip and forearm joints in particular are likely areas for tick attachment, but do full scans anyway, and keep your pets up-to-date on their vaccines, heartworm, and ask your vet for more tick tips.

Tick Removal

A tick is found! Even the cautious hiker with the most attentive practices can pick up a tick in unlikely ways. Two years ago, my partner, the scientist, found a very small one on his stomach when he got home from a walk in the park. It hadn’t had time to latch yet, so there was no concern about disease transmission. Even so, after finding that tick, we both did full searches on ourselves, our cats, and our clothing. 

  • Do a full tick check after every potential exposure, focusing on warmer areas where the veins may be closer to the surface (e.g. armpits, behind the knees). Dry clothes on high heat in a dryer if concerns about stowaways remain. When my partner found the tick on his stomach, I immediately began to check myself as well. We’d walked together, through the same part of the forest, and the likelihood that I’d also picked up a young tick from the same brood was high. 
Photo by Kamaji Ogino on Pexels.com
  • When a tick is found, take a deep breath. If it hasn’t bitten yet, the disease transmission likelihood is low. If it has already bitten, it is better to have a steady hand and a cool head, then a shaky hand and a panicked head. And a clear mind helps you differentiate between ticks and forgotten freckles, so learn from my crazed error and don’t attempt to remove something a dermatologist should really take a look at. 
  • When a tick is found, use a tweezer or a tick-removal tool, found in tick kits, and attach the tick to a piece of tape. Do not use petroleum jelly, matches, or oil. These are antiquated methods that increase your chances of contracting a disease.
  • If the tick has already bitten down, grab the tick at its mouthparts and pull straight out, without twisting or squeezing. Disinfect the area and wash your hands. If you’re like me, you’ll also want to take the hottest shower you can stand, and disinfect the area again in an hour or so, just in case. 
  • Watch for the characteristic Bulls-eye rash. Not every bite leads to a rash, but it is a sign that the area has been infected. 
  • Call your healthcare provider if any symptoms occur. A rash, fever, or joint pain following a bite should absolutely be concerning. An itching bite site may only be indicative of the open wound itself, or something more serious. Use your judgment, and read the literature provided by your local parks department. Personally, I’d call for an appointment at the first sign of a bite, because of how prevalent Lyme disease is in my area and how the effectiveness of treating it decreases over time.

These recommendations were all provided by the Suffolk County Department of Health, and more information, including a quick-reference sheet, can be found here.

Spread the Word

I think back to that day in the park a lot, watching these low-to-the-ground, heavy-breathing, barely-covered humans running around in an area where ticks reside. It wasn’t my place to inform a stranger to spray chemicals on their children, especially given the facial expression I was met with when my outburst burst out. Perhaps they knew all about tick bite prevention, tick avoidance, and tick-borne diseases, and my concern was misplaced entirely. But now, as we enter into the next seasonal warming and feeding frenzy, I feel compelled to educate and inform. 

  • Tell your friends about ticks, everything you’ve learned here is general enough that it will apply to nearly every area where ticks are found. 
  • Research your specific area, your local parks and grassy fields, to know where ticks are likely to be. 
  • Read all signage, follow all safety procedures, and be diligent about tick checks. 
  • Be the one to ask the tough questions— Have you used tick spray today? Have you seen the CDC’s estimates for tick-borne disease transmission? Can you stay near the center of the trail, please? Have you always had a huge freckle on your calf? 
  • Carry tick spray in the car, along with the bug spray and sunscreen, for quick application and reapplication for days spent enjoying nature. 
  • Keep going outside! Ours is not to fear nature. Ours is to learn to live within her bounds. 
Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Pexels.com

Sources

This article has been fact-checked by The Scientist, and used the following source material: 

Stop Ticks to Avoid Lyme and Other Tickborne Diseases | Division of Vector-Borne Diseases | NCEZID | CDC

Preventing tick bites | Ticks | CDC

The Life Cycle of the Tick from Eggs to Ambush — American Kennel Club (akc.org)

The Tick Lifecycle — Lyme & Tick-Borne Disease Testing & Statistics (ticklab.org)

How ticks spread disease | Ticks | CDC

Chronic Lyme Disease can make patients profoundly debilitated.

Tick Surveillance Program (suffolkcountyny.gov)

Signs and Symptoms of Untreated Lyme Disease | Lyme Disease | CDC

How many people get Lyme disease? | Lyme Disease | CDC

Reports of Lyme disease in Suffolk County, New York (tickcheck.com)

What makes ticks tick: Dr. Städele studies their every move — News — Illinois State

When Does Tick Season Start? — Consumer Reports

Ticks (suffolkcountyny.gov)

Blydenburgh County Park and its Ecosystem

I’m entirely at home during my walks through Blydenburgh County Park, a 627-acre park in Smithtown, NY on the north side of Suffolk County, Long Island. The 6-mile trail, known as the Loop, which circles what is known locally as Stump Pond, is particularly enjoyable. The lake and surrounding forest breathe beautiful life lessons for my spirit to contemplate and appreciate.

On my first walk around the pond, while attending to a hunting heron, I was stopped by a neighborly man who explained that the Pond was man-made with intention. It was created when large swaths of trees were felled at a particularly low elevation. An L-shaped depression collected what seems to be an entire lake’s worth of rainwater. The stumps were left eerily behind to decay into the lakebed. They fed and housed countless species of water-dwelling creatures as they slowly broke down under the surface. 

Despite the best efforts of the Suffolk County Parks Department to name the shallow body Newmill Pond, anyone from the area would identify it as Stump. Water fowl seemed to walk on water. This heron, it would seem, had found a perfect stumped perch on which to prey. 

On the first spring-feeling day in March, I didn’t take the long loop. I choose a shorter hike around the forests lining the southeasterly shore of the pond. By holding to the trails running west and then south, beginning in the Dog Park parking lot, I was able to traverse 2 miles of terrain. The Dog Park was uncharacteristically vacant. Normally, it’s a spot for canine companions to roam and sniff freely, while their handlers discuss ground turkey cuts and chew toy preferences (I imagine.)

A short walk downhill brought me to a small, sandy lookout. Notably, there were twenty or so Mute Swans at the far side of the pond, visible from the trail near the shore. It was one of the earliest signs of spring. The swans were pairing off and beginning their seasonal mating rituals. I imagined these elegant birds in a Swan Soiree, ruffling feathers, swimming in tandem, and catching fish to impress potential mates. It was a dance, a ritual that had been done for generations, playing out for any passerby to see.

A White Mute Swan swimming in a lake with wings up and spread as though taking flight, 3 geese in the far background
(Photo from Pixabay)

It isn’t unusual to see waterfowl in and around Stump — mute swans, Canadian geese, mallards, wood-tail and puddle ducks, and the occasional Great Blue Heron. (New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation has released an excellent resource on identifying the most common Long Island waterfowl.) Binoculars come in handy on these trails, not only for the waterfowl, but also the red-winged blackbirds, catbirds, fish crows, orioles, blue jays, and other songbirds which live seasonally in and around Blydenburgh and the adjoining Caleb Smith State Park. Occasionally a red-winged hawk will even swoop into view.

Some days, the trails are burgeoning with animal life. On such a wonderfully warm and sunny day, I expected a lot of encounters, more than the far-off courting swans, and was disappointed to find the woods quiet and still, save for a handful of hikers and dogwalkers. 

The park has seen an uptick in visitors since the quarantine began. It lifted my spirits during the depth of the pandemic to see people enjoying the natural landscape, many for the first time. I don’t love when the park is teeming with people; walking shoulder brushing shoulder on narrow trails doesn’t allow the solitude or separation I walk for. As far as our communal life is concerned, however, the health benefits of regular exposure to nature are innumerable, and I’m happy to share the landscape with any and all who wish to traverse it, personal preferences aside. Occasionally, like my stumpifying educator, I even meet a fellow birder or naturalist.

On that day,, I set my mind to feeling the park at winter’s end, before the gnat clouds swarmed, before pollen rained down, and while the trees slept, visibly dormant. In recent storms, the park had lost more than a few trees, which were found in cluttering heaps on the forest floor. 

As the ground cover had not grown in yet, the loss of hundred-plus-year-old titans was in full view, many of whom were likely older than the previous four generations of my own family. It was a solemn sight. Some giants had been pulled directly from the sodden earth and their roots loomed large, 15ft in diameter. False caves of intertwining root structures. Other giants were torn away, limb from trunk, and had been scattered in pieces on the ground and in the crowns of neighboring trees. In many cases, signs of decay prior to the fall was evident in the bare branches and sickly bark. Healthy, aged trees do not go down so easily. Healthy, aged trees don’t lean on neighbors for support.

A long-fallen, dead tree with jagged branches covered in moss
(Photo by amayaeguizabal from Pixabay)

In reflection, I was forced to see the bigger picture. Fungi and bacteria were hard at work on these fallen giants, converting the singular organism back into its raw materials, to be fed back through the cycle and absorbed by other beings as nutrients. Large mushrooms and mossy greenery were budding amidst the bark. These decomposers would live and die as well, and so doing, they would turn the fallen tree to dust.

In the wake of the fallen were generations of progeny reaching into the void for minerals, water, and sunlight. It was only in the death of the elders that the young stood a chance at survival, with the help of nature’s most underappreciated janitors. The process of natural decay, not merely the colorful flowers and leafy ornamentation of spring, brought me hope.

While my human instincts were to grieve the tree and feel loss, I was forced to move forward in the line of reasoning. The death of a single tree allowed for thousands of other species to thrive — for scavengers, decomposers, and even nearby plants to feed. When a century-old oak fell, lurking pine trees gained needed canopy space after ten years dormancy, soaked more sunshine, and shot several feet taller in the following year. Other trees might fuse their root system to the fallen oaks’ roots to strengthen the underground network and above ground stability. (Research has been done to show that many forests appearing as disparate trees are actually embodied by interconnected and wide-spreading family networks.) Excess water and nutrients would fuel new growth. The fallen oak would become a home for some, building material for others, food, and temporary shelter. After the death of a single tree, the forest was made vibrant anew.

As I walked the Blydenburgh forest trails on that sunny, hopeful afternoon, I confronted the bleakest part of the life cycle with acceptance. Spring was not only about the joy of birth, mating swans, hatching eggs, and blooming flowers. It was also a time of reverence. The stumps submerged beneath the water’s surface fueled an entire lake’s ecosystem. Aged trees, felled during a severe thunderstorm, provided necessary raw materials for many plants, animals, insects, fungi and bacteria. Life and death were integral to the forest’s survival. That which was born will die, and that which died will be cherished and reapportioned to new life, and so on.

The pondside path wound back on itself to the road which led back to the Dog Park parking lot. Slow-moving cars and slower-going walkers crossed paths with subtle acknowledgements of the shared experiences, a nod here, a small wave there. I smiled at every dog I passed. Some sniffed gladly in kind. 

a view of the pond at Blydenburgh County Park with trees in the far background
(Photo from TripAdvisor.com)

For the novice hiker, Blydenburgh County Park offers several low-elevation, well-worn and tended paths. It boasts kept campgrounds, a large communal dog park, and plenty of adventuring terrain. It also offers a sense of tranquility for those seeking meaning within nature’s bounds.