As John Muir, a University of Wisconsin-educated naturalist said, “Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom… Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy...”
Unfortunately, something else may also flow into you after walking quietly off into the woods. Tick season is upon us, and they seem to pose an ever-increasing threat of disease. If you are an avid outdoors person, you have probably already done your research about ticks and Lyme disease, but I would like to share a few important reminders. Since my job is to encourage people to get outside and enjoy nature, I want to make sure you do it safely!
Wood ticks (more accurately known as the American dog tick – Demacentor variablis) and the smaller blacklegged ticks – Ixodes scapularis (which are sometimes inaccurately called deer ticks) both tend to hang out in tall grass and low shrubs, especially where fields meet forests. This is not the only place they live, but it is where they are most abundant. Therefore, you may want to avoid walking through tall grass.
Ticks do not fall on you from trees, and they do not jump from vegetation. They simply hang on to the top of a blade of grass with a couple of their eight legs, and wave the rest in the air so they can grab whatever warm-blooded animal happens to pass by.
Deer, mice, other small mammals are the primary sources of the blood necessary for the tick to develop from each stage to the next in their complicated life cycle. Whom the young blacklegged ticks feed on determines whether they become a carrier for the spirochete bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, the organism that causes Lyme disease. Larvae who feed on an infected host will carry the bacterium as they molt into the nymph stage and begin looking for their next meal in early summer. This is the stage mostly responsible for infecting humans.
The ecology of blacklegged ticks, their mammal hosts, and B. burgdorferi, is extremely complex. Studies have shown that an increase in biodiversity can significantly reduce the likelihood of humans becoming infected with Lyme disease. As the diversity of small mammals increases in an area, it becomes more likely that the ticks will feed on something other than deer mice or chipmunks, the two best reservoirs for the bacteria. Some critters, like opossums, actually end up eating most of their tick load during grooming!
Grooming is important for humans, too. Wear light colored clothing and tuck your pants into your socks to help make sure that you find and remove ticks quickly, before they have attached to you. As you are walking behind your friend, scan their clothing for small moving dots. You can also apply insect repellent with 20-30% DEET to shoes, socks and pants. There is another chemical known as Permethrin, which reportedly kills ticks on contact with treated clothing. Do a bit of research, then read and follow directions to minimize the risks of chemicals. I personally prefer protective clothing to protective chemicals.
If you do find a tick that has attached to you, don’t panic! A blacklegged tick must be attached for 12-24 hours for the Lyme or related bacteria to be transmitted. Then, do NOT attempt removal using nail polish, Vaseline, matches or other methods that may traumatize the tick and cause it to regurgitate its gut contents. Yuck! Instead, get a pair of tweezers with good tips, and grasp the tick on its head, as close to your skin as possible. Pull it out slowly and firmly. If you get a little chunk of skin, it means you got the whole tick!
Finally, be aware of your health. If you know you have been bitten, watch the site for signs of infection, or the characteristic bull’s-eye rash. The rash may appear in only about half of Lyme infections, however. In any case, watch out for symptoms such as fever, chills, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, and swollen lymph nodes. If you suspect you may have Lyme or a similar tick-borne disease, see your doctor as soon as possible! Early treatment usually results in 100% recovery, but late-stage infections can have lasting health effects.
Tick-borne diseases have affected many people in our Northern communities. Arming yourself with information is the best defense. To learn more, join us for a lecture on the “Biology and Ecology of Lyme Disease.” This free event takes place at the Cable Community Centre in Cable, WI, at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, July 24. Dr. Paul Goellner, a retired family practice physician from Spooner, was the first to recognize a cluster of cases of Lyme disease in the northern Midwest more than 35 years ago. He will share information about Lyme and other tick-borne diseases, and their role both in your body and in nature. With a greater understanding you will be able to protect yourself and reduce your fear of encountering ticks.
As John Muir knew well, there are many health benefits to spending time in nature. In my view, the health risks to NOT going outside far outweigh the risk of disease from ticks. With a little care and vigilance, we can make sure that it is only nature’s peace that infects us, and nothing else!
For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI, at 13470 County Highway M. The current exhibit, “Deer Camp: A Natural and Cultural History of White-tailed Deer,” opened in May 2013 and will remain open until April, 2014.
Find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot, http://cablemuseumnaturalconnections.blogspot.com/.