By Jill J Easton
What are you most afraid of outdoors? Some people hate snakes and kill them on sight, in other parts of the country it is fear of mountain lions, wolves or bear attacks, and outdoorsmen arm themselves or carry pepper spray.
The biggest danger you can find in the woods isn’t any of these, it comes from a tiny arachnid that lurks in shaded, damp locations and waits on grass stems to jump onto your unprotected body: the tick.
Forget coronavirus, ticks can carry a ginormous number of viruses, nematodes, protozoa, toxins, and bacteria that can make humans sick. The number of things that these tiny members of the spider family share when they suck your blood will make your head spin. Tick bite sicknesses are so common that doctors don’t even give blood tests for bacterial tick infections anymore. They just say, “tick-borne illness,” give you a prescription for doxycycline, and send you on to the pharmacy.
Unfortunately, bacterial illnesses are not the only reason ticks are so scary. In the last eight years, ticks have also carried many new diseases and viruses that are so far untreatable. Some of these like the Heartland virus killed farmers in Missouri.
Others like alpha-gal cause an allergy to red meat. Imagine swelling up after enjoying venison backstrap or a juicy steak. This allergy can close the throat and the victim chokes to death. There is also Bourbon virus, Powassan disease, B miyamotoi infection and 364D rickettsiosis. It’s enough to keep a passionate outdoorsman cowering in the basement.
The good news is all these tick-borne problems are unnecessary. Ticks can be prevented in two ways; end them before they infect you, or prevent them from biting you or your family.
How ticks work
Tick eggs are laid in damp, protected areas. First stage larval ticks are pinprick-sized and are born seeking their first blood meal when the temperature climbs above 50 degrees. They climb up a grass stem, stick or bush and swarm on any bird, human, or other warm-blooded animal they can catch.
Birds or small mammals are generally their first meals. Getting to blood means the tick must chew through skin and find blood. To do this, a tick will stick its mouth parts completely inside the host animal and breathe through its body.
While they eat, they also collect bacteria, viruses, and other disease-causing entities from the animals they bore into and inject saliva which keeps the tick’s location unnoticed at first. That first meal may include Lyme’s disease, ehrlichiosis, Heartland virus or something less virulent, but if human blood is their next meal, they can infect.
Eventually, they will drop back to the ground, undergo metamorphosis and change into nymphs. They laboriously repeat the process and lurk, waiting for the next warm-blood that comes close. Unlucky nymphs can wait weeks, or several rounds of seasons to suck blood again, but they are patient and stealthy. After feeding, a process that may take days or weeks, these nymphs drop back to dirt and molt.
Again, they winter in damp leaves, in spring when they smell blood, they either wait, or chase it down. After the third or fourth feeding, they change into adults and reproduce. Male ticks rarely drink blood. They usually just run around on the next animal looking for females to breed.
Sounds like another one of those plans of nature like the coronavirus with no cure. But with ticks, we are beginning to take control.
What can you do?
The best protection for humans is to use Permanone or Permethrin on the outside of any clothes they plan to wear in the woods. Spray your clothes, including socks, boots and shirts with one of these mixtures. If you are a turkey hunter, also spray your backpack and sitting cushion (on both sides). Either wear high boots or tuck your pants into your socks for an additional level of protection. Some hunters even wear dog flea and tick collars cinched around the bottom of their pants. Ticks love biting in dark, warm places, so closing your pant legs can make a real difference.
For an extra level of protection, use a skin-safe spray containing a high level of DEET. Mountain men and Native Americans used to coat themselves in bear grease to repel bugs, but that probably would cause a whole new kind of social distancing.
If you also want to keep ticks away from your home safely, fire, guinea fowl and rocks are your best defenses. Burning leaves that build up on your property will kill lurking ticks. A barricade of gravel will dry out and kill any ticks that try to cross it. Unfortunately, pets and people will still ferry these tiny animals across the gravel moats.
Planting pennyroyal or garlic around the edges of the most used parts of your yard is another excellent deterrent. For an anti-chemical approach, make a garlic spray. Just peel three garlic bulbs, pulverize them in a blender or food processor then strain the garlic through a colander. Mix a quarter-cup of the liquid with one cup of water and spray it on your lawn every four days. Continue this for seven weeks and you should kill many bugs in the area, not just ticks. Adding up to two percent garlic to your pet’s food is another remedy that is supposed to keep bugs off of dogs and cats.
Ticks are the enemy, but with a bit of care and protection you can avoid these blood-sucking monsters and still enjoy the outdoors.
First, try to scrape the tick off with a fingernail or credit card at the skin line. If this isn’t successful, get a pair of tweezers with tips that angle inward and grab the tick as close to where the head is immersed through your skin, then pull until it is removed. The sooner a tick is removed the smaller the chance of an infection.