Each year, as the warmth of the March sun thaws the frozen ground and slowly erases the last remnants of winter, the anticipation of seasonal outdoor activities grows. Spring rushes in with a freshness in the air and emerging new growth and wildlife come alive once again. Likewise, we too come out of hibernation to enjoy the wonder that only mother earth can bestow.
What better way to spend a weekend afternoon than with a hike in the woods with friends, pets, and family? If you live in Connecticut, you know the routine; long pants tucked into your socks, a thorough spray of tick repellant and you’re on your way. After a long day that was both exhilarating and exhausting, you shower and check yourself (and your dog) for ticks. It is a common sequence of actions that we do when venturing out into wooded areas across our state.
But are we really doing all we can to protect ourselves from ticks and the pathogens they carry? Do you know how to avoid the most tick infested areas while on your hike? It has been said that a well-informed person is the safest person when it comes to protecting one’s self from the risks associated with ticks.
Between 2004 and 2016, the number of cases of tick-borne illnesses doubled and several new tick-borne pathogens have been discovered in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control confirms that diseases transmitted by ticks and mosquitoes is on the rise in our country. While the reasons are still unclear, some reasons may have to do with climate change, migration and a decline in deer hunting.
It is common knowledge that ticks like tall grasses and brushy vegetation. But it is worth taking note that scientists are beginning to decipher the different behaviors of ticks as they pertain to their species. Additionally, which types of brush and shrubs they are inherently attracted to. With just a small amount of information learned herein, you can significantly reduce your risks of picking up ticks while on your next hike.
In order to identify areas to stay clear of, you must first be informed of a few tidbits about ticks. Considering the black-legged deer tick is clearly one of the most egregious vectors of all the ticks in the northeast, we will discuss exclusively their habits.
The deer tick (Ixodes scapularis) is a desiccation-prone tick that finds shelter in shady, moist and humid environments. For that reason, they choose invasive vegetation that thrives among the understory of the forest. From there, the ticks are safe from drying out while they are questing on the tips of grass and branches.
Having four stages of their lifecycle, deer ticks rely on blood meals to make the transition from one form to the next. This is why questing for a host is so important. While they do not jump or fly, they perch on the edges of leaves with front legs extended just waiting for a mammal to brush by. Because they are in a shady area, they can patiently await a host without drying out in the heat of the sun. While any mammal will do, they prefer deer as their primary host with mice and chipmunks as secondaries.
Where there are deer, mice and chipmunks, there are going to be ticks. So understanding their habits as well helps us determine the likelihood of tick infestations. An example of this can be illustrated with oak trees. Researchers know that there is a connection between the amount of white-footed mice near oaks dropping acorns. Could there be an increased population of ticks in the vicinity of oak trees?
So now that you know a thing or two about deer ticks, you should take note that they are clever creatures. They tend to take cover under leaves and ground cover where they can stay hydrated. Ticks are patient and are capable of sustaining long periods of time without a blood meal as long as they do not dry out. Deer ticks have learned to gather in vegetation that suits their survival; one that makes it easier to hitch a ride on their favorite host. Likewise, they amass on vegetation that deer find less palatable. Deer will eat a wide variety of vegetation but find some distasteful. This is a problem because these particular plants may not be thinned out by deer. In fact, it helps such shrubs (and ticks) thrive.
One of these shrubs is Japanese barberry. Japanese barberry is an invasive species from Japan. Invasive species are ones that are carried from one part of the world to another where it may have no natural enemies. It is thought that this plant was introduced to our area in the late 1800’s as an ornamental shrub for its colors. However, in the new surroundings, they thrive and can overcome indigenous species. In the case of the Japanese barberry, it raises the Ph of surrounding soil and over takes large areas with thick, dense infestations. Killing native vegetation in its path. This environment is perfect habitats for ticks as they create dark, moist and thorny areas with limbs that are just the right height for questing.
Removing Japanese barberry has proven to be an effective way of reducing disease-infected deer ticks from a given area. However, due to its nature, the shrub will creep and return in the coming years if regular preventative measures are not taken to maintain the area. It is a simple fact, where there is Japanese barberry, there are deer ticks.
You can identify this invasive shrub by its flowers or by its oval leaves. Depending on the conditions and time of year, colors can range from dark red or purple to green or bluish-green. Its leaves are smooth and untoothed and it grows wild and thick. If you are out on a hike, infestations of this plant are nearly impassible but simply brushing by one could transfer a tick onto your body. If you want to avoid these vectors, stay clear of Japanese barberry.
Another species that is native to Asia is the multiflora rose which grows in dense thickets. This plant is notorious for having a high density of ticks carrying Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium known to cause Lyme disease. It is thought this is due to the fact that mice, particularly the white-footed mouse, prefer this vegetation as shelter. These mice are the main carriers of the bacterium that is transmitted to ticks and then passed on to humans. Originally brought to our country for its flowers and to act as a natural fencing for cattle, this species has spread across many areas of our country. The main take away with this plant is that, like most vegetation, ticks are present here and there is evidence supporting a higher density of pathagen-carrying ticks are found within.
Thinking about where you choose to walk can also have an impact on keeping yourself safe from ticks. We now know that ticks like humidity. That said, choosing to walk along streams may reduce your risks. While black-legged deer ticks are comfortable in humid areas, too much moisture can be deadly as fungi can infect them. In contrast, walking in direct sunlight can be an area less likely to be a haven for ticks as they flee the sun to avoid drying out and perishing.
Finally, use caution when traversing over tall grass and ground cover, downed trees, logs and rock formations. Mice and chipmunks are often foraging in and around these areas and could drop vector ticks they’ve been carrying. Use extreme caution when entering and exiting wooded areas when working or hiking. It has been found that the first few feet of woods, at the wood line of the forest, can be a very high risk area for picking up ticks. Perhaps this is because this location is a very opportune area for questing. There is no need to stay out of the woods or to be anxious when enjoying the outdoors. Relax, but be aware acutely of your surroundings. Stay at the center of paths whenever possible, stay in sunlight where available, avoid tall grass, brushing against branches and most of all, stay clear of Japanese barberry.