Category Archives: Ticks

What’s Trending? Ticks and Lyme Disease

This month’s post features contributions from Dr. Bieneke Bron


As stories about measles and vaccinations circulate in the news, it’s easy to lose track of other emerging health threats.  May is Lyme Disease Awareness month, and if you want to look at an emerging health threat particularly relevant to the Midwest, look no further than deer ticks and Lyme disease.

Adult female deer tick (Ixodes scapularis). Photo credit: Robert Webster / xpda.com / CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikipedia.

A Brief History of Deer Ticks and Lyme Disease:
The Lyme disease story is surprisingly new to Wisconsin and deer ticks are something that our grandparents didn’t have to deal with while growing up.  It wasn’t until the late 1960’s that our first deer ticks were documented in northern Wisconsin. At the time, this particular tick was known from more southern locations, so the first Wisconsin reports were noted as a curiosity in the scientific literature.  In actuality, this marked an early foothold of deer ticks in the region, which have spread rapidly.  Fast forward 50 years and deer ticks are widely distributed around Wisconsin and surrounding states.

Deer ticks are only one component of the Lyme disease equation. The spirochete bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi (or the closely-related B. mayonii) must be transmitted by these ticks to cause Lyme disease in humans.  Similar to the deer tick situation, Lyme disease has had an interesting recent history.  Research from the Yale School of Public Health suggests an ancient origin of Borrelia burgdorferi, but the first clinical cases of Lyme disease weren’t formally documented in the medical literature until the 1970’s.  At that time, an unusual cluster of juvenile arthritis cases with an accompanying rash helped researchers characterize the disease near Lyme, Connecticut*.  It wasn’t until the early 1980’s that the roles of deer ticks and Borrelia burgdorferi were recognized.

Skip ahead a few decades and the numbers for Lyme disease have increased steadily.  Today Lyme disease is the most commonly reported arthropod-borne disease in the US with over 40,000 confirmed and probable cases in 2017 alone.  Looking at Wisconsin’s statewide averages, approximately 20% of deer tick nymphs (juveniles) and 40% of adult deer ticks are carrying Lyme disease, which are alarmingly high percentages.

Deer tick nymphs (juveniles) next to chia seeds, sesame seeds, flax seeds and a penny for size reference. Photo Credit: Dr. Bieneke Bron, MCE-VBD.

Tracking Ticks with Mobile Technology:
With the changing tick and tick-borne disease situation over the last 50 years, understanding the factors that influence where and when ticks are encountered is more important than ever before.  Researchers at the Midwest Center of Excellence for Vector-Borne Disease and the Northeast Regional Center for Excellence in Vector-Borne Diseases have teamed up to develop The Tick App—a mobile app to help gather critical clues to better understand human exposure to ticks.  The app, available in iTunes and GooglePlay, not only allows the public to contribute valuable data to tick researchers, but the app provides helpful tips on tick identification, activity, and precautions to take.  During the tick season, the researchers will also identify ticks from the images submitted in the app.

As we move into peak tick season, Midwesterners should be aware of ticks and take appropriate precautions to protect themselves [Recommended reading: the ABCs of Tick Season].  Learn more about The Tick App by visiting thetickapp.org or follow on Twitter @TickAppOnTour.


*Interestingly, a 57-year old physician from Medford, Wisconsin, was diagnosed with the hallmark rash of Lyme disease (erythema migrans) in 1969 [Scrimenti 1970, Arch Derm].  Just imagine, Lyme disease being known as Medford disease…

Spring’s Coming…and so are the Insects

With daylight saving time beginning over the weekend and warmer temperatures knocking at our door, spring is finally crawling our way.  Last winter is one we won’t soon forget—the season started out mild before temperatures plummeted with January’s polar vortex.  During the coldest stretch, our coping strategy might have involved layers of blankets and reruns on Netflix, but what about the bugs? Questions regarding the winter impacts on insects have been some of the commonest at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab this year.  There will undoubtedly be some impacts of this year’s polar vortex, although many insect species are well-equipped to deal with the cold.  Before we know it, overwintering insects will become active again in the Midwest and many species will simply shrug off the polar vortex as if it hadn’t happened.  For insects that didn’t fare as well in the cold, high reproductive capacities will likely allow their numbers to bounce back relatively quickly.

Thus, 2019 isn’t going to be insect-free by any means and intuitively this makes sense.  We know that every year insects make it through the winter months and become active as temperatures creep up in spring.  Looking at an evolutionary time scale, this year’s cold snap wasn’t the first time that the species in our area have encountered frigid temperatures before, and many creatures are adapted to survive surprisingly cold conditions.   We might have chosen to block it out of memory, but the Midwest experienced a very similar situation a mere five years ago.  Weather patterns in January of 2014 saw temperatures dip to -20˚F and colder in some spots of the Midwest.  The following summer, we still had plenty of insect activity in the region.

Thermometer from a cold and crisp Wisconsin morning. Photo credit: PJ Liesch, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab

Since we don’t see insects bundling up with tiny mittens and scarves, how do they make it through the winter?  It turns out that insects and other arthropods have a number of strategies to help them survive.  For starters, insects typically have a particular life stage (e.g., egg or pupa) that is more tolerant of adverse environmental conditions, such as freezing or desiccation.  Passing through the winter as a more resilient life stage is a good starting point.

Some of the other strategies are surprisingly similar to humans.  Just like snowbirds heading to warmer states for the winter, certain insects like monarch butterflies and green darner dragonflies migrate southward to avoid the coldest temperatures.  Our official state insect (the honey bee) doesn’t migrate, and instead chooses to remain active.  Honey bee colonies shiver together as an insect version of central heating to keep the inside of their hive a constant temperature.  Other insects simply seek shelter and overwinter in protected locations to avoid the worst of the cold.  Insects like the multicolored Asian lady beetle, boxelder bugs, and the invasive brown marmorated stink bug are fond of sneaking into man-made structures to spend the winter.  If insulation and central heating make homes warm enough for us, it’s plenty warm to prevent insects from freezing.  In more natural settings, such insects might end up sheltering in rock piles or beneath the loose bark of a dead tree.  Those locations might not be as toasty as a house, but they can still provide adequate respite from the cold—meaning that insects using this strategy should have been well protected from this year’s cold spell.  Similarly, many insects and other arthropods spend the winter below ground or on the surface of the ground amongst a layer of insulating leaf litter.  In addition, many parts of Wisconsin had a solid covering of snow by the time the polar vortex arrived, so creatures such as ticks had a thick layer of insulation from the coldest of the cold.

Another strategy utilized by insects is the production of natural antifreeze compounds (specific alcohols or proteins) which serve as cryoprotectants to help prevent freezing within their bodies.  We know that a cup of water will turn to ice at 32˚F, but dissolve salts or other substances in that same water and it will require colder temperatures to freeze it.  Insects producing high concentrations of these cryoprotectants can remains unfrozen at surprisingly low temperatures, similar to a bottle of high-proof spirits kept in a freezer.  Taking it even further, the common black and brown woolly bear caterpillars seem to embrace the cold and actually allow ice to gradually form within their bodies.  This may sound like a fatal mistake, but by regulating the formation of ice crystals on their own terms, woolly bear caterpillars are able to control where ice formation occurs and limit it to specific areas of their bodies to prevent damage.  If the same caterpillars were unprepared and froze rapidly, their cells might burst like a can of soda put into a freezer.

The ubiquitous woolly bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella) is well adapted to winter conditions. Photo credit: Dave Govoni via Flickr.

And then the ash borer
The insect I’ve gotten the most questions about lately has been the emerald ash borer.  While not native to our area, this invasive pest comes from similar latitudes of eastern Asia and the cold-hardy larvae are fortified with cryoprotectants as they spend the winter beneath the bark of ash trees.  These natural antifreeze compounds have their limitations though, and just like sidewalk salt failing to melt ice on a really cold day, the cryoprotectants only work down to certain temperatures before freezing (and death) occurs.  For emerald ash borer, the point at which freezing spontaneously begins to occur (the supercooling point) is when temperatures dip into the range of -13˚F to -23˚F.  This year’s polar vortex did see temperatures fall into and below that range, which would have killed plenty of emerald ash borer larvae, although the insulating effects of the tree bark likely provided some buffering.

The pale end of a surviving emerald ash borer larva sticking out from its tunnel. When larvae are killed by freezing, they typically become discolored. This sample came from the Milwaukee area in early March, 2019. Photo credit: PJ Liesch, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab

Emerald ash borer populations will almost certainly take a hit from this year’s polar vortex, but it’s not going to be a knockout blow.  Give it some time and the reproductive capacity of this invasive species will allow populations to rebound.  The news reports of cold-induced EAB mortality in early February might have been encouraging, but scientific models from the US Forest Service suggest that to really knock down EAB in the long run, we’d have to experience arctic blasts on a regular basis—news that many Midwesterners aren’t likely to receive warmly.


Further Reading: For a great read on how wildlife survive the winter, check out Bernd Heinrich’s Winter World

Under the Microscope: Arthropod Trends of 2017

Over 2,500 cases flowed through the doors of the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab last year, ranging from the typical June beetles through bizarre creatures that most humans will never see in their entire lives (like the itch-inducing pyemotes grain mite).  Perhaps Forrest Gump said it best when he quipped, “life was like a box of chocolates—you never know what you’re gonna get.”  A distinction amongst insects, however, is that the “box” contains 20,000+ possibilities in Wisconsin alone and over well 1,000,000 globally.  With that said, a year at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab is like having one humongous, box of really awesome chocolates, without all the calories.

Finding a pyemotes itch mite is like trying to find a needle in a haystack, except in this case these microscopic mites were in a farmer’s batch of corn. Photo credit: PJ Liesch, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab

With insects and related creatures, the weather can of course have a big impact and there definitely were examples of this in 2017.  The current cold winter aside, the last two winters had been otherwise mild, giving a few insects suited for warmer conditions a chance to inch their way northward.  Last spring and summer, this meant a bunch of sightings of an otherwise uncommon bee for our area known as the carpenter bee due to its habit of tunneling into unpainted cedar trim and other wood.  In a typical year, I might see a few cases out of the southeastern corner of Wisconsin, but 2017 had regular reports of these bumble bee look-alikes during the spring and summer months.  Similarly, praying mantids often meet their maker at the hands of a cold winter, but were surprisingly abundant in late summer and fall of last year.  Ticks were also extremely abundant last spring and with the rainy start to the summer, mosquito numbers were at an all-time high in some traps.  Mosquitoes were also a big deal in the news, with Wisconsin’s first confirmed reports of the Asian Tiger Mosquito last July.

Asian Tiger Mosquito (Aedes albopictus). Photo credit: James Gathany, Centers for Disease Control

The creature that amassed the most phone calls and emails in 2017 was the notorious Japanese beetle, which likely also benefited from the warmer than average winters these past few years.  For Wisconsin gardeners and farmers, the Japanese beetle is certainly a formidable foe, but at least there are ways to mitigate the damage.  In contrast, there’s another destructive pest wiggling its way into the spotlight in the state, which is much more difficult to control—an invasive earthworm commonly known as the jumping worm.  While they may not be insects, these earthworms are creepy-crawly and can wreak havoc in  gardens and flower beds, so I received a fair number of reports and questions.  What stood out to me in last year was the rapidity with which these destructive worms have been moved around the state (moved—as in humans have moved soil, plants, mulch, and similar materials).  Jumping worms were first found in the state in 2013 (in Madison), but have now been spotted in roughly half of the counties in Wisconsin.  To make matters worse, we don’t have any highly effective tactics to prevent these worms from turning rich garden soil into the consistency of dry, crusted coffee grounds—gardeners beware!

Speaking of invasive species, the emerald ash borer has continued its march through the state and now has footholds in some of our northern counties including Chippewa, Douglas, Eau Claire, Marathon, Marinette, Oneida, and Sawyer counties.  Unfortunately, our greatest concentrations of ash trees are in the northern part of the state (e.g. black ash in swampy areas), and the loss of ash from northern wetland areas could result in significant ecosystem effects.  Other recent invaders like the spotted wing drosophila and the brown marmorated stink bug had busy years as well.

Rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) visiting a flower in Middleton, WI. Photo credit: Rick Terrien

In other insect news, it seemed to be a good year for monarch butterflies in 2017, and the rusty-patched bumble bee finally made it onto the federal endangered species list. I was pleasantly surprised by a number of confirmed sightings of the rusty-patched bumble bee in the state as well. Perhaps my favorite “bug” story for the year involved black widow spiders.  It’s not common knowledge, but we do technically have a native black widow species in the state (Northern Black Widow, Latrodectus variolus).  It’s a reclusive species and is rarely encountered in Wisconsin, but reports trickled in once or twice a week at some points during the summer months (details to follow in a future blog post).

With so many cases last year, we’re really only touching the tips of the antennae.  If you’re interested in hearing more of the unusual stories from the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab, I’ll be giving a “highlight” talk on May 4th on the UW campus.

 

 

 

Don’t Be an (April) Fool: Look Out For Ticks

April Fools’ Day may be here, but the topic of ticks is anything but funny.  The Midwest is home to over a dozen tick species, although only a few of these are encountered regularly by people and/or pets and are of notable concern.  Nevertheless, the medical concerns posed by some species can be quite significant.  Our two most notorious species of ticks in Wisconsin and nearby states are the wood tick (aka American Dog tick) and the deer tick (aka black-legged tick).

The wood tick (Dermacentor variabilis) is perhaps our most commonly encountered tick and adults of this species are fairly noticeable with their relatively large size (~ 1/4  inch long).  Wood ticks can be associated with certain human diseases, such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever although the threat of this disease in the Midwest is low.  A complication regularly caused by this tick in the field of veterinary medicine is tick paralysis, which is a serious reaction to components of the tick’s saliva in situations where ticks have been attached to pets for extended periods of time.

Adult Female Wood Tick (American Dog Tick). Image source: CDC.

At the moment, the tick of greatest concern in the Midwest is the deer tick (Ixodes scapularis).  This is the species notoriously associated with Lyme disease, although it can also vector anaplasmosis, babesiosis, and other diseases.  This tick is noticeably smaller than wood ticks, making them more difficult to spot; adult deer ticks come in at a mere ~ 1/8 inch long.  Interestingly, deer ticks are relatively new to the upper Midwest and these ticks weren’t spotted in Wisconsin until the late 1960’s .  Fast forward 50 years and deer ticks can be found in nearly every corner of the state.  The high rate of infectivity (i.e., percentage of ticks carrying a disease) is worryingly high: approximately 20% of tick nymphs (juveniles) and 40% of adult ticks in Wisconsin are carrying the microorganism responsible for Lyme disease.  In certain spots in the state, the rate of infectivity has been documented at closer to 60% in some studies.  This high rate of infectivity combined with the recent ubiquity of deer ticks poses significant health risks to residents of the upper Midwest and nearly 30,000 confirmed Lyme disease cases are reported from across the country to the CDC each year.  What’s more alarming is that estimates from the CDC suggest that the actual number of Lyme disease cases may be an order of magnitude higher!

Adult Female Deer Tick (Blacklegged Tick). Image source: CDC.

So how will ticks and Lyme disease be in Wisconsin this year? Some scientists have predicted high tick and Lyme disease pressure in the eastern US in 2017.  While that topic has gotten a lot of attention in the news, this may not be the case in our state.  The thought behind the prediction is that high rodent populations (a host for juvenile deer ticks) may bolster deer tick numbers.  While this relationship was documented in certain geographic locations in a 2005 study, the relationship didn’t hold up across the board as a general predictor of tick activity and neither did weather patterns.  With that said, it’s difficult to get a reliable predictor of tick activity and Lyme disease pressure in a given year.  In addition, based on recent field observations by fellow entomologists, rodent populations don’t seem to be bursting at the seams at the moment in Wisconsin. Last year (2016) seemed to be an average tick year in the state and we may be in for more of the same this year.

Regardless of tick numbers, the threat of ticks and Lyme disease is still out there and isn’t something to be ignored.  Deer ticks can potentially be encountered anytime of the year that the temperatures are above freezing and the ground isn’t covered with snow.  While often thought of as a creature of the deep woods, ticks can also be found in suburban areas near parks and nature preserves, so vigilance is a must—even in your own backyard.  Below are some sound tips to help prevent issues with ticks this year:

  • Personal Protection: Long sleeved clothes can help prevent ticks from getting to skin. In addition, light-colored clothing can make it easier to spot ticks.
  • Repellents: A number of EPA approved repellents (such as DEET) can help repel ticks when properly used. Always consult the product label for important usage instructions (e.g., application to skin vs clothing, how often to reapply).  As another consideration, clothing can be treated with certain permethrin products (often sold at outdoor/camping stores) to provide long-term protection from ticks. Outdoor clothing impregnated with permethrin can also be purchased at outdoor clothing stores and can remain effective for extended periods of time.
  • Tick checks: To effectively transmit Lyme disease, deer ticks have to be attached and feeding for approximately 36 – 48 hours which means that daily tick checks can help find and remove ticks before they’ve had a chance to transmit Lyme disease. Tick checks can be an important precaution for both people and pets.
  • Protecting Pets: Family pets should be treated with a preventative flea and tick treatment. Consult with your veterinarian about the products recommended for your particular pet(s).  Lyme vaccines for animals are also available through your veterinarian.

Perhaps Mother Nature has a cruel sense of humor with her April Fools’ pranks—we finally have an end to the dreary days of winter only to move into tick season!