Warm Weather Isn't Just Great for Gardeners; Ticks Love It, Too

May 31, 2018

Cape Cod Cooperative Extension Entomologist Larry Dapsis.
Credit Courtesy of the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension

We're now deep within the active period for ticks on the Cape, Coast and Islands, and many of them harbor illnesses that can make humans sick--including Lyme, Babesiosis, Anaplasmosis and other diseases with sobering names. 

WCAI Morning Edition Host Kathryn Eident talked with Cape Cod Cooperative Extension Entomologist Larry Dapsis about this year's tick population, and how to protect ourselves.

Eident: Any time the temperature is above what 40 degrees, we need to be worried about ticks. Of course, now we've got temperatures consistently in the 50s and higher. So talk about what we're looking at for ticks this season.

Dapsis: We have to be mindful when temperatures are above freezing. Any time you have temperatures above freezing, or a break in snow cover, you'll have tick activity. If you look at the case data on Lyme disease in the U.S., we see cases of Lyme disease in January, February and March. So, the risk of getting a tick bite and something like Lyme disease is year-round.

Eident: So really, the lesson here is-- much like with applying sunscreen even if it's cold out--you should be protecting yourself.

Dapsis: Absolutely. I mean, the primary tactic in the tool box that we recommend is permethrin-treated clothing and footwear. I wear it around and if you do that, you reduce your chances of getting bitten by a tic by least 90 percent.

Eident: Is there any way to gauge how bad a tick population might be in a given year? Are there environmental factors that would encourage more ticks?

Dapsis: There's a lot of media coverage right now that predicting the apocalypse. And I just kind of roll my eyes. We did five years of surveillance and what we saw are at 14 different sites that we're monitoring is that tick populations vary year on year-- but not by a tremendous amount. The populations are regulated by the structure of the host animal communities. So, it's really about how many mice and chipmunks and squirrels and how many eggs were laid.

I've read reports that the rain caused a huge tick surge. Rain doesn't create ticks. OK? This is not spontaneous generation. [laughs] What all the precipitation does is create environmental conditions that are conducive for the ticks to be active. And they have a behavior called questing where they get up on foliage and they point their legs up the air. And when you have conditions where the humidity drops-- when you get dry conditions--it forces to ticks back down deeper into the leaf litter.

So, with all this wet weather, it just provides conditions where they can be out there for a longer period of time, and it just increases the probability we might bump into one of these little landmines.

Eident: Remind us where you might be in the most prone to find a tick.

Dapsis: Yards are a good thing to consider because surveillance research showed that two-thirds of the people who submitted a tick for identification got those ticks in their own backyard. So, ticks and gardening go hand in hand. You're not going to find ticks in the middle of a lawn-- you know short grass, direct sunlight. It's just not a good environment for deer ticks. Lonestar ticks--we're finding them in places we don't you know see deer ticks, but you look at the edges of your lawn... it's cooler, more humid...that's where you're going to find the ticks.

So as part of a yard management strategy, I am a proponent of perimeter yard sprays. So, spray right about now to Memorial Day, and then a month later and that'll cover that window of when the nymphs are active. They're just starting to come out now, and the problem with that stage of the tick is that they'll be with us until early August. They're only the size of a poppy seed. And so you know it can elude you in a tick check.

Eident: Larry Dapsis, entomologist for the county of Barnstable at the Cape Cod extension, thank you as always for your insight.

Dapsis: Stay tick safe.

*This transcript was edited lightly for grammar and clarity.