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Getting “Ticked Off” with Ticks

Posted by Kim Kaplan, Public Affairs Specialist, USDA Agricultural Research Service in Research and Science
Jun 23, 2017
Adult deer tick
Adult deer tick, the kind that can carry and spread Lyme disease. (ARS photo by Scott Bauer).

As we kickoff the traditional start to the summer and head outdoors, remember to apply that sunscreen. Oh, and watch for ticks. According to Andrew Li, an Agricultural Research Service (ARS) entomologist who is leading a new deer tick control program, they’re out in force, too. Experts predict 2017 will see the highest number in years of these sesame-seed-size parasites—also known as “blacklegged ticks”—that spread the bacteria that cause Lyme disease.

Several factors have contributed to the upsurge. A bumper crop of red oak acorn last fall and an overall warmer-than-usual winter in the Midwest and the East added up to a population explosion of white-footed mice, which typically provide deer tick larvae with their first blood meal. Along with this blood, ticks can get the Lyme disease-causing bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi (B. burgdorferi). The warmer winter also kept some of the tick population from dying during what is usually their dormant period.

Upon the arrival of spring, ticks have become active again, looking for their next blood meals, and it doesn’t really matter if it comes from a deer, dog or human. Ticks don’t discriminate. White-tailed deer are just the most common medium- to large-size mammal to walk through the tall grass and brush where deer ticks wait to hop aboard the buffet.

Li, who coordinates the ARS five-year Area-Wide Integrated Tick Management Project, is comparing several control methods in wooded areas and bordering residential suburban neighborhoods. He hopes to reduce the percentage of both white-footed mice and white-tailed deer that are carrying ticks or at least ticks infected with B. burgdorferi.

Control methods include rodent bait boxes, ARS-patented “4-poster” deer treatment feeders, and a bioinsecticide spray, all based on the principles of integrated pest management (IPM)—using the least amount of pesticides possible while still getting the job done. Both the 4-poster feeder and the mouse bait box are designed to lure in deer and mice, respectively, so they may brush up against a tick-killing pesticide.

One of the project’s unique features is that before Li decides where to put the 4-posters, his team is fitting a number of deer with GPS collars to track the paths of bucks and does between parklands and residential areas. This will bring scientific precision to where the 4-posters are placed—something that has not been done before.

While there is some information about deer movement patterns in suburban landscapes, the exact relationship between white-tailed deer travels and tick distribution isn’t well understood.

Ultimately, Li wants to create an IPM-based control strategy that can easily be used by neighborhood associations, public health agencies especially at the municipal and county levels, and even by individual homeowners.

ARS-patented “4-poster” device for deer
An ARS-patented “4-poster” device that lures deer so that they get tick-killing pesticide transferred to their heads, necks and ears while feeding at the device. (ARS photo by Wayne Ryan).
Category/Topic: Research and Science

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Nora Preston
Jun 25, 2017

As I was doing my daily search for ticks on my Shorkie, I discovered she was covered in what at first looks like specks of dirt that doesn't easily come off and when I did get one speck off , it started crawling away. Looking at it with a jeweler's loupe, it was indeed a tick. I just checked her yesterday and there was nothing. But today, she is literally covered with probably way more than a hundred ticks. Some of them are smaller than a period (.). These looked just like your picture. Please put out a warning to everyone, especially here in the South, that ticks are super bad this year. Thanks so much for your information.

Jodi Hillenbrand
Jun 29, 2017

Over the passed ten years the ticks have really become a problem here in southern Pennsylvania for my pets and myself. I couldn't be more thrilled to hear that someone is finally making the effort to make a change. I look forward to what Andrew Li and his team will accomplish.

Sep 17, 2017

Since the about April of 2017 we have not seen ANY deer ticks! In previous years we were seeing them on our dogs and occasionally on ourselves. We have been letting our dogs go in the woods even more this year since their disappearance. Also, there are a lot more deer around than in previous years. Anyone else notice the unexplained absence of deer ticks?