Boxwood blight, Cylindrocladium buxicola, was first identified in 2011 when submitted samples were examined at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. This marked the first confirmed cases outside of the UK and New Zealand. Since then, it’s been found on many cultivars of boxwood, Buxus spp., up and down the east coast.
Boxwood Blight, Photo credit Oregon Department of Agriculture
Now, it’s not only showing up in many downstate counties and Long Island, but completely decimating formal gardens and landscape nurseries. With various landscape and cutting uses, Boxwood is a million dollar plus industry, including its use as a major component in holiday wreaths and decorations.
Boxwood Blight, photo credit Margery Daughtery
While boxwood blight might not be a concern in your yard, you’d notice its loss in many landscapes. This is a major concern of landscapers, horticulturalists and growers.
Boxwood blight shows up as dark brown spots on leaves. These lesions enlarge with dark borders until they merge with others. By then an entire leaf—and many nearby—may be covered. These browned out or straw-colored dead leaves drop in record time. “That’s why they call it a blight.”
Stem infection also occurs and shows up as long black lesions. This FUNGAL DISEASE forms sporadochia (fruiting structures), visible with a hand lens. In layman’s terms, sporadochia produce sticky spores—nasty seeds of destruction if you’re a fungal disease! Spores happily spread by wind, rain, splashing water, or by hitchhiking on you, your lawnmower and rake, your dog, even your favorite garden birds.
Why this sudden outbreak? Anyone who suffered through this swampy summer can guess. According to Cornell Alum and New York State Climatologist, Mark Wysocki, “This is more typical for the Gulf Coast states.” Syracuse, for example, sweated through 531 hours when the dew point, a standard measure of humidity, was at least 70 degrees. That’s more than double the number of sticky hours of the next closest year, 2005.
THIS CHART SHOWS # OF HOURS OF DEWPOINT >= 70 at Ithaca Tompkins Airport by year 1996-2018
With relatively new pests, IPM and conventional treatment options aren’t time-tested. Other factors such as soil health, over or under-watering and winter injury increase susceptibility, but this year’s humidity has come at a high cost to boxwood.
For more on boxwood blight, here are two great resources:
Bob Portmess was a mechanical engineer and former executive with Cox Communications who just happened to be an avid golfer.
That last item is key. Twelve years ago, Portmess walked into turf guru Frank Rossi’s office at Cornell University. He knew exactly what he wanted: to work, he said, “with the people who produce the finest golf playing surfaces in the world.”
Two years later, Portmess had received his Masters of Professional Studies from Cornell. His focus: turfgrass management. He was synthesizing the practical knowledge that Rossi and colleague Jennifer Grant now director of NYSIPM) had amassed over seven years of experimental work at the world-renowned Bethpage Golf Course, also a New York State Park.
By the following year, Portmess had developed an “IPM Handbook” of best management practices for sustainable turf, informed in part by his engineering background. This handbook, now translated into Spanish, served as a resource for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America’s seminar that Portmess co-instructed at several International Golf Shows. It continues to guide management of New York’s 29 state park golf courses as well as golf courses around the country that want to cut back on inputs while maintaining top quality turf.
Portmess’s passion for teaching turned out to be as consuming as his passion for golf. “Whether it was frequent light topdressing, root pruning, over-seeding, better ways to aerify the soil, or careful use of water—Bob taught them all,” says Larry Specchio, superintendent at Chenango Valley State Park Golf Course. Each tactic Specchio notes is a core IPM method.
“I find myself almost daily wanting to pick up my phone and call him; he was more than just a consultant to me,” Specchio says. “No one has a had a more positive impact on my career than Bob.”
Rossi couldn’t have predicted it at that time, of course, but that meeting in 2006 turned out to be one of the most important partnerships of his career.
“For that, I owe Bob more than simply a nomination for an award he is more than worthy of, but rather my own continued commitment to the work that he started,” Rossi says.
Lake in the background, greens near the front. Here’s where Portmess’ family received the Excellence in IPM award.
Sadly, Portmess passed away before he could see the full impact of his work. “Losing Bob Portmess was a tragedy” said Rose Harvey, commissioner of New York State Parks. “But his legacy lives on in the sustainable management of our golf courses.”
Melinda Portmess, Portmess’s widow, received the Excellence of IPM award at a ceremony at Green Lakes State Park in Syracuse on August 10th.
Seasonal items will fill with water and provide mosquito breeding habitat.
So, with all the rain, it’s time for a quick yard inspection. When I conducted mine, it was too easy to find collected rainwater. The wheelbarrow was left right-side up. A snow rake tucked behind the shed was filled with water. An upside down garbage can collected water in its grooves. For these items, I simply flipped them over and the mosquito problem was solved. This simplest of IPM method is highlighted in the video, Managing Mosquito Breeding Sites, by Dr. Matt Frye.
These mosquito larvae are thriving in a driveway puddle – at least until the puddle evaporates.
Keeping an eye on the weather can also help with management decisions. Take, for example, the puddles formed in my driveway. Getting into inspection position (head down, butt up), it was easy to see the wriggling larvae. I checked the weather, saw it was going to be dry through the next day, and made the decision to let the puddle dry up. When I checked the driveway the next day, the puddle, and the mosquito larvae, were gone.
Alas, the rainy forecast will cause it to refill with water, again providing a good location for female mosquitoes to lay her eggs. Next step? Fill in the low spots in the driveway with sand to prevent standing water.
This dried puddle is no longer able to support mosquito larvae.
Diligence in monitoring is the key to preventing mosquitoes from breeding on your property. Monitor regularly and take steps to prevent standing water from becoming mosquito breeding sites.
Just last week we posted a pretty good rundown on what to do about ticks—and how. So if you need a review, just call up “Tick, Tack, Toe the Line: Lyme Disease and What to Do” and carry on from there. Remember, the basic idea is no matter which life stage they’re at, know how to protect yourself. Because you can’t count on feeling them crawling on you.
And speaking of life cycles—OK, so the blacklegged tick’s larvae have finished, the nymphs are mostly dormant right now, and the adults have yet to strut their stuff. But that’s no reason to let down your guard. If you’ve been following our posts, you know that there’s a new tick in town (and if you’re following the news, another waiting in the wings.) Their life-cycles can be different. Be watchful!
So here’s what you do:
Two years. Yup. Ticks know how to make good use of their time.
Steer clear of hitchhikers. Ticks don’t survive long in most homes because of low humidity, but still—you’re safest if you put your clothes in a clothes dryer and run it on high heat for 20 minutes. The tumbling action of the dryer and the high heat kill ticks and similar critters.
(Permethrin is an insecticide in the pyrethroid family. Pyrethroids are synthetic chemicals that act like natural extracts from the chrysanthemum flower. BTW, plants can’t run—that’s why many have evolved chemical means of protection. So say I went the DIY route, soaked some mums in oil, put the oil in a spray bottle, and spritzed my pants. But it failed to repel or kill ticks the ticks I bumped up against. Why? Mums come with a cocktail of natural chemicals inside those lovely flowers. And for permethrin and thus for repelling and killing ticks, I’d need to have the right chemicals in my brew—not to mention the know-how for making the stuff.)
Here’s your full-on tick check. Did we say to be thorough? Well, we’re saying it now.
Check for ticks. It bears repeating. Do a tick check at least once a day. Get to know the spots and bumps on your skin so you can recognize new ones. New ones that just happen to have legs.
Protect your pets. Just like people, pets can encounter ticks and acquire tick-borne disease. They can also bring ticks inside with them, which might expose you to ticks. So if your pet goes outdoors, it should have some protection against ticks. Ask your vet. And give it a tick check too—every day.
Remove ticks safely. Only one method has been officially evaluated for its ability to safely remove ticks — using sharp tweezers, grab a tick as close to the skin as possible and gently pull up. Other methods could increase the risk of acquiring a tick-borne disease. To learn more, see our post “It’s tick season. Put away the matches.”
Swimming or bathing won’t kill ticks, whether attached or not.
Ticks have a different system of breathing than humans. You can immerse them in water for hours and they won’t croak. Besides, swimming or bathing might not be enough to remove an unattached tick crawling on your body. The best way to kill a tick? Remove it safely with pointy tweezers, then place in a jar of rubbing alcohol.
And there you have it. If we don’t see you at our statewide conference Breaking the Cycle: Integrated Management of Ticks and Mosquitoes on August 7 (9 AM at the Westchester County Center, 198 Central Ave, White Plains, New York), we’ll have a video of the conference uploaded on our website soon after.
You’ve all heard about them, right? Yeah, the little buggers sneak up on you, bite you, and—maybe—make you sick. Sometimes really sick.
They’re not really bugs, of course, but tiny eight-legged critters remotely related to spiders but without the benefits spiders provide. (Note that adult females plump up like small grapes once they’ve satisfied their appetite.)
Just for fun, I wrote a sentence on my finger — period and all. And yep, the larvae are that small. (Courtesy Cal Dept Public Health)
For today, we’re considering blacklegged ticks, aka the deer tick—the name it was christened with years ago, before entomologists realized that tick is already here; has been for thousands of years—and it already has a name. Yes, we’ve got a couple of other ticks we can’t ignore. But that’s for another day.
So … the best reason for ditching the name “deer tick”? It suggests deer are the problem. OK, blacklegged ticks do infest deer and deer can travel widely, so yes, they carry them around in the literal sense and ticks will drop off here, there, most anywhere. But no, deer don’t vector (aka “carry”) Lyme disease. Look to mice, chipmunks, and shrews for that.
So. Back to the topic at hand. The youngest ticks are six-legged larvae, the size of the period at the end of this sentence—and with one exception, they don’t vector disease. (More on that in another post.) After they feed on, say, a mouse or robin, they morph into nymphs and grow as large as poppy seeds. Since poppy seeds with legs are still darn small, they’re the ones that most often nail us.
And the adults? They’re more likely to vector Lyme and the co-infections that too often accompany it or act in its stead. After all, ticks have adapted to be secretive; to keep from being detected. But since by now they’re the size of sesame seeds—still small, yes, but easier to see—you’re more likely to get shed of them before they do damage.
No matter which life stage they’re at, know how to protect yourself. Because you can’t count on feeling them crawling on you. Here’s the countdown:
Tick habitat—it’s everywhere.
Recognize and avoid tick habitat. Tick species differ in where they prefer to hang out, but it’s possible to come too close for comfort to a tick anytime you leave the pavement. Sure, some parts of the state are home to orders of magnitude more ticks than others are, but that’s no reason to think you’re immune to those nasty little critters catching you unawares. And it’s so easy to be unaware.
Daily Tick Check! Regardless how careful you are, you won’t manage to steer clear of ticks 100 percent of the time. Perform daily tick checks even if you haven’t been outdoors in a day or so. Get to know the spots and bumps on your skin so you can recognize new ones. New ones that just happen to have legs.
Dress the part. If you’ll be in tick habitat (meaning you step off the pavement), take precautions by wearing light-colored, long pants tucked into your socks and a light-colored shirt tucked into pants. It’ll be easier to see ticks crawling on you and more difficult for ticks to get to your skin.
Get yourself some super-pointy tweezers, the type that airport security would probably confiscate. Be firm: steady and straight up until that sucker lets go.
Remove ticks safely. Only one method has been officially evaluated for its ability to safely remove ticks — using sharp tweezers, grab a tick as close to the skin as possible and gently pull up. Other methods could increase the risk of acquiring a tick-borne disease. To learn more, see “It’s tick season. Put away the matches.”
Which is all we’ll say for now, other than on August 7 we’re hosting a statewide conference on—you guessed it—ticks. Oh … and skeeters, too:
Breaking the Cycle: Integrated Management of Ticks and Mosquitoes
Tuesday, August 7, 2018, 9 AM
Westchester County Center, 198 Central Ave, White Plains, New York
July 3, 2018
by Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann Comments Off on The Jumping Spider at Your Service
It’s rare that a creature as small as a spider could be aware of a human in such a charismatic way, but that’s the nature of the jumping spider. With two pairs of forward-facing eyes set on a flat face (along with two other pairs pointing outward) the jumping spider is a predator that relies on its keen vision to find prey—even as it evades predators and keeps an eye on you. No larger than an inch (and mostly much smaller), these spiders are harmless to humans but present in our environment in all but the coldest weather. They seem to thrive in the complex outdoor spaces that we create with our homes, sheds, landscapes, patio furniture and gardens.
Look at that dude’s face! (It’s a male.) credit: Creative Commons en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
Why? Because there are plenty of spaces for hiding and lots of prey.
Jumping spiders make up the largest group of spiders in the world—about 13 percent of those we’ve named. While most are found in the tropics, over 300 species of jumping spiders inhabit North America. They are mainly carnivorous, meaning they are hunters. Sometimes jumping spiders incorporate nectar into their diets, and one species is known to feed on plant matter—making it unique among all spiders. As hunters, jumping spiders use a variety of strategies, from ambushing prey to sneakily dropping down on their victims from above.
Like most spiders, they extrude silk from silk glands at the rear end of their abdomen, but jumping spiders don’t spin webs. They use their silk as a safety line for rappelling and to remember where they’ve been. Jumping spiders can take prey much larger than themselves. Like all spiders, they subdue their prey with venom from their jaws, aka chelicerae.
One of the truly remarkable things about jumping spiders is their ability to … you guessed it … jump. With those big binocular eyes, they calculate the distance of a leap and the position of prey before leaping. Once airborne, they drop that silk line for safety.
Jumping spiders have also have elaborate mating rituals. These include drumming and vivid dancing by male spiders hoping to attract females. The peacock spider is a great example.
So what does this have to do with IPM? Sometimes just understanding the creatures we see in our everyday lives can have an impact on our feelings about killing them. Many people have negative feelings about spiders. Yet most are completely harmless and never infest homes. They are serious predators of flies, mosquitoes and other pest insects. In fact, the ecological services of spiders are much larger than we can measure.
Jumping spider captures a carpenter ant queen
Consider the ways you manage your home landscape, especially the areas around the perimeter of the house or building. Reducing the use of insecticides can help conserve beneficial arthropods like jumping spiders. Most home landscapes never need insecticides for management. If a shrub or a plant has persistent pest issues, such as aphids or mites, it might not be worth keeping. Just remove that problem plant and replace it with something better adapted and pest-free. After all, choosing the right plant for the right place is core to good IPM.
Meanwhile, keeping mulch away from the foundation (consider a pebble border) can help keep insects such as ants out of your house. Make sure those shrubs and trees around the home are not touching the side of the building to eliminate the bridge from landscape to house and the need for perimeter insecticide use.
Creating a more sustainable landscape encourages beneficial arthropods—the spiders and such—naturally found in your yard. Spiders, mysterious and creepy as they might seem, are top predators of insect pests. As the charismatic ambassadors of the spider world, jumping spiders remind us that it’s OK to live and let live.
June 28, 2018
by Matt Frye Comments Off on What can I spray for …
Nobody—not even an entomologist like me—wants to see critters in their home, office, school, or favorite restaurant. But see them we do. And unfortunately, the first reaction most people have is to reach for a can of bug spray and hose the place down.
But what does this really accomplish? Two things: a quick kill of only the critters you sprayed, and you’ve now left a coating of pesticides wherever you sprayed. Satisfied? Probably not, since your goal is to solve the problem, not just kill a few critters. If so, then put down the bug spray and walk away—slowly.
When we think of pests, we might imagine them as vile creatures that are intentionally tormenting us. The truth, however, is that pests are always there for a reason. Maybe they are inside because they found a gap leading to a safe place to spend the winter (think brown marmorated stink bug, ladybug, or boxelder bug). Or maybe your gutters are clogged and there is a moisture problem inviting to carpenter ants. Or you have overripe bananas with the stem torn at the top, exposing the fruit within, and now you see fruit flies. While it’s true that a spray might kill pests—so too can a swift shoe.
But if we want to develop a solution that addresses the issue and prevents future problems, we must follow two simple steps:
Inspection. Where are the pests found and how did they get there? It might feel like your whole house is infested, but with a thorough inspection you can often find the source of a problem by looking for where the critters or their evidence are most numerous. If you can find the source of where they are feeding or breeding, chances are you can do them in.
Identification. Knowing the identity of a pest tells you why it is there. It’s also a necessity for crafting a sound management plan. For example, this spring I received many calls about ants. Even when callers had tried sprays, they were ineffective. Why? Each pest is there for a different reason—and needs its own management approach.
Carpenter ants trailing on the outside of a building might be moving from outdoor parent nests to indoor satellite nests.
Case 1: Ants in Rental Home! Using a few pictures to determine size and the number of nodes, the ants were identified as carpenter ants, which do not actually eat wood. Instead, they excavate rotten wood to make their nests. This means carpenter ants indicate a moisture problem somewhere in the structure; an important problem you might not otherwise have known about. So in an oddball way, you owe them a debt of gratitude. And although parent nests are typically outdoors, satellite nests can be found inside buildings—so an inspection is needed to discover where the ants are living. This can be accomplished by baiting and tracking ants to the source, then eliminating the rotten wood and ant nest. For more details, see our carpenter ant fact sheet.
Case 2: Ants in Bathroom! These ants are identified by how they smell when crushed. Their name? The odorous house ant (abbreviated OHA). They build nests in moist locations and forage indoors for spilled foods.
Odorous house ants can move their entire colony or split into several colonies — making it tough to deal with them. (Credit: Janet Hurley)
Based on their biology, OHA can be difficult to manage because the colony is mobile—moving nest locations at will—and can actually split into multiple colonies if sprayed or for other reasons. To date, the best method to control OHA are certain baits that, when placed correctly, can be spread throughout the colony to achieve control.
Case 3: Winged Ants Indoors! Known as citronella ants by their smell, this species isn’t really a pest of homes because they don’t eat what we eat, nor are they at home indoors. Instead they live in the soil and feed on secretions from root-feeding insects. But they can be a nuisance when winged ants emerge into homes. Since their sole purpose in life is finding a new place to live, spraying or baiting are pointless. To avoid problems down the line, you’ll need to eliminate the cracks and crevices where ants are getting inside.
Foraging pavement ants bring bait back to the nest and spread throughout the colony. They’re a great target for baits.
After you’ve found where the pests really are and ID’d them correctly, you can a develop short-term plan to reduce their numbers and long-term solutions that fix the conditions that allowed or enticed them in in the first place.
Need help identifying a pest? Here are some options:
Got ticks on your mind? Your questions. Our answers:
How common are tick-borne diseases — and who is at risk?
Lyme disease is the second most common infectious disease in the entire U.S. But over 96% of all cases come from only 14 states. Now that’s scary, because New York and the Northeast are at dead center for tick trickery.
What looks like spilled ink? That’s where most ticks hang out. (CDC)
Indeed, Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne disease in the entire United States — and the second disease most commonly reported to the Centers of Disease Control, aka the CDC. (It comes right after chlamydia and before gonorrhea—both sexually transmitted diseases that could strike most anywhere.)
Each year, the CDC gets reports of about 30,000 cases of Lyme disease. But most likely that’s just a fraction of the number of cases. The CDC estimates that each year between 300,000 and 400,000 people are infected with the bacteria causing Lyme — and children ages 5 to 9 have the greatest risk. Parents, check your kids for ticks every day. Make it as mandatory as brushing teeth. “Oh, they were outside for only 10 minutes” or “Oh, but we live in a big city. How could there ticks possibly be here?” — trust us, these aren’t reasons to skip.
Those numbers on the left-hand side? It’s 5-9 year-old boys who most often run into the wrong side of a tick. (CDC)
No, you don’t have to be an outdoor adventurer to be exposed to disease. People can chance upon ticks in all sorts of places. Pushing a friend on the swings, gardening, picnicking at the park, taking a shortcut through a vacant lot, raking leaves—any perfectly normal activity could put you or your kids on the wrong side of a tick.
What diseases do ticks transmit?
Lyme disease is hardly the only pathogen ticks carry. They can also carry anaplasmosis, babesiosis, erhrlichiosis, Powassan virus, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia, and Borrelia miyamotoi—a bacteria related to the agent of Lyme disease. (More info: Lyme Disease by the Numbers.)
Naturally, different kinds of ticks transmit different disease-causing pathogens — and the list of tick-borne pathogens continues to grow. Plus ticks can transmit more than one pathogen at a time. Example? The blacklegged tick (aka the deer tick) can transmit Lyme disease, anaplasmosis and babesiosis all at once. Here’s the short list:
American dog tick: Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia
Does every tick convey disease-causing pathogens?
No. Ticks don’t share a common destiny. Not every tick carries the pathogens that make us sick. Here in the Northeast, three ticks transmit pathogens—the blacklegged, lone star and American dog ticks.
Larval ticks, the stage that hatches from eggs with only six legs (nymphs and adults have eight legs), aren’t thought to play a major role in disease. But if larval ticks take their first blood meal from an infected animal, well—they’re infected too. Once they morph into nymphs, they can transmit whatever pathogens they took on.
Note: it’s possible that Powassan virus, carried by the blacklegged tick, can be transmitted from a female to her offspring — and that larval blacklegged ticks can transmit Borrelia miyamotoi, a type of relapsing disease. And what’s a relapsing disease? It’s when signs and symptoms of disease return after it seemed the disease was gone.
Blacklegged nymphs cause the most disease—partly because
they’re roughly the size of a poppy seed—not easy to see, and …
they’re active in spring when people aren’t thinking about ticks — though it’ll be summer before symptoms show.
Some nymphs and adults never acquire pathogens. Not every tick is infected. The rate of infection differs throughout the region. No common destiny there.
If I find a tick crawling on me, am I at risk for disease? And … how do they transmit disease?
Ticks transmit pathogens only while they’re attached and feeding. So no, a tick can’t infect you while it’s still looking for a place to feed. Once it’s fed, it’ll drop right off. That said:
if you find a tick crawling on you, don’t squish it
brushing ticks off your clothing is no guarantee they’ll stay off.
But if you keep a small vial of rubbing alcohol in your backpack or bag, you can quickly kill ticks by dropping them in. And that’s one less tick in your neck of the woods.
How do they make you sick? Ticks pick up pathogens from one organism (make that the mouse rummaging around under the shrubbery) and transmit them to another (make this one your kid). Here, not for the faint of heart, is how it works:
Larval ticks slide their mouthparts into the mouse — their soon-to-be host — and begin sucking blood. (Those mouthparts might seem a poor excuse for a head, but they get the job done.) At the same time, their saliva enters that mouse’s bloodstream — and yes, the saliva might be carrying pathogens. The time required for pathogens to pass from tick to host is variable. While viruses such as Powassan virus can be transferred within minutes, bacteria appear to take longer. (Just how long is open to debate, so we won’t get involved in that one.)
You might have noticed that we’re having a bit of a crisis with ticks and mosquitoes. They bite, they suck, and they can transmit pathogens to us during their feeding. One of the many things that we can do to avoid ticks and mosquitoes is to use repellents. But there are two important ideas to consider before picking a product from the shelf:
Not every product has been proven effective, and
The safety of a product depends on how you use it.
More than ever, an old adage reigns true: buyer beware! When it comes to tick and mosquito repellents, there are a number of products that claim to be effective—but offer no evidence or data to support the claim. This is especially true of many “natural” products with essential-oil active ingredients. Why? Products with essential-oil active ingredients don’t have to pass a scientific review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and can go to market without demonstrating that they work. These products give users a false sense of security that they are protected against biting insects when they are not. Learn more about this topic from our Tick FAQ section, What natural products can I use to repel ticks? For details on what products work, see the Insect Repellent Buying Guide from Consumer Reports
A confusing mix: some of these products can be applied to skin, others should not under any circumstance contact skin while wet. Read the label before using any pesticide product.
Product Safety and Use Restrictions: The Label Is the Law
As a pest management educator, I’ve said a million times, “the label is the law.” This is literally true—all labels of EPA registered products read, “It is a violation of Federal law to use this product in a manner inconsistent with its labeling.”
Here is a critical distinction about the products you might see on a shelf:
Products with the active ingredient permethrin can actually kill ticks and mosquitoes. According to one label, “This product must not be applied to clothing while it is being worn. Under no circumstances should bare skin or clothing on the body be treated.” In other words, if you’re going to use permethrin, you have to treat your clothing or gear before you intend to use it so the pesticide can dry. According to the label on one product, this may be two to four hours.
On the other hand, products with active ingredients DEET, picaridin, and IR3535 can be sprayed on clothing and skin to repel biting pests. These products work by masking the cues that make you smell tasty to mosquitoes and ticks. According to one label for these products, “Use just enough repellent to cover exposed skin… Do not use under clothing… Frequent reapplication and saturation is unnecessary for effectiveness.”
We want you to enjoy the outdoors—and we want you to do it safely. Both types of products can be used to protect you, your friends, and families from the bite of blood-feeding organisms. To further protect health, always read and follow label instructions.
Ticked off about ticks? You are not alone. And knowing the what, where, why, etc. is critical to knowing how to deal with them. So here it is, the first in a series: the low-down on that pest we love to hate.
May you, dear reader, stay tick-free and healthy.
1. What, exactly, is a tick?
Ticks are related to mites and spiders—but not to insects. (Now don’t go worrying about spiders—in the Northeast, virtually all are common victims of common misunderstandings.) Ticks have four life stages: egg, larvae, nymph and adult. All stages (well, not the eggs) feed on blood for energy to grow and later to reproduce. Larval ticks have six legs; nymphs and adults have eight.
Those things that look like antenna? Not—they’re highly adapted legs that process vital information. And that snout in the middle? Blood-sucking mouthparts. (Photo CDC)
Right now, three species are a health concern here in New York: the blacklegged tick, the lone star tick, and the American dog tick.
2. What do ticks look like?
Regardless the species, unfed ticks look like flattened teardrops with eight legs. And depending on their species, life stage and sex (male versus female), they have different color patterns on their bodies. But after they’ve eaten, their abdomens (the females’ especially) can expand so much that it’s really hard to know which is which. You can get positive IDs here.
Just keep in mind that learning a tick’s identity doesn’t mean you know if it’s carrying a disease.
I wrote a sentence on my finger, period and all. And yep, the larvae are that small. (Courtesy Cal Dept Public Health)
As for size? Again, that depends on the species, its life stage, and whether it has fed (and for how long). For blacklegged and lone star ticks, larvae are the size of the period at the end of this sentence. Nymphs? Think poppy seeds. Adults? Sesame seeds. When fully fed, adult females can be as large as a raisin.
American dog ticks, though, are a tad larger than the other two.
3. Are ticks a new problem? Why have we been hearing so much more about them lately?
Turns out ticks are nothing new. In fact, evidence suggests that ticks were carrying Lyme disease pathogens 15 to 20 million years ago (Lyme Disease’s Possible Bacterial Predecessor Found in Ancient Tick). What is new? We’re seeing far more ticks throughout the Northeast and much of North America than during any time in recorded history. And of course the more ticks in the neighborhood, the greater our risk of disease.
Why are ticks on the move? For one, (sub)urban sprawl leaves small patches of wooded areas—great habitat for mice and deer but far less welcoming to their traditional enemies—hawks or foxes, cougars or wolves. (More later on the role of mice and deer in tick-borne diseases.) In addition, a warming climate makes northern areas more hospitable for ticks.
Ah, yes. A place to call home—and nary a wolf in sight. (Photo provided.)
4. Where do ticks live? How do they find me? And where did the deer ticks go?
Blacklegged ticks are usually found in woodlots, forest edges, and groundcovers such as pachysandra or periwinkle—places where leaf litter, shrubs, and tree cover provide the moist environment they need. And how do they find us? Just as we sometimes go on quests, so too do they. Only they’re not seeking adventure or the Holy Grail, but simply a host. A host that provides the food (think blood) they need to thrive, or at least survive.
About deer ticks? Years ago, researchers thought they’d found a new species and gave it the common name “deer tick.” Turned out it was the same old blacklegged tick that’s been here since time immemorial.
No matter that these ticks lack eyes—questing ticks stand on the edge of a twig or leaf, their first pair of legs extended. Evolution endowed them with cleverly designed legs: they’ve got sensors to detect temperature, the carbon dioxide those hosts exhale, and odors or sounds specific to those hosts. When a host brushes past, they grab on tight.
The nymphs typically quest below a person’s knee-height. Because adult ticks feed on larger animals, they might quest higher up to find a host—as high as your waist-height or mine.
The lone star tick is on a roll, with its own suite of diseases and syndromes — some still mysterious. (Photo CDC)
The lone star tick thrives in a wide range of habitats, from shady forests to sunny lawns or roadsides. Unlike the blacklegged tick, the lone star tick hustles toward its prey, even across pavement or dry sand. Other distinguishing features? Well … it’s lots more aggressive. Imagine a tick that travels three times as fast as the blacklegged tick, has excellent vision, and hatches in stinging swarms that can put fire ants to shame.
Last but not least—the American dog tick. Forget the woods: this tick thrives in warm, dry places—roadsides, grassy fields, scrubland and lawns. Larvae and nymphs mostly feed on small mammals, while adults climb grass, brush, or twigs to find medium-sized animals—people included. And sometimes American dog ticks could be even more aggressive. TickEncounter has reported seeing American dog ticks follow a regular source of carbon dioxide that attracted them for upward a few hundred yards to the house. And in one memorable case ticks were crawling up the outside walls toward window screens and doors. Now if that doesn’t give you the willies….
No matter which tick you might collide with—this is one party you don’t want to host.
Stay tuned for another informative post on the biology behind that pest we love to hate.
(Adapted from nysipm.cornell.edu/whats-bugging-you/ticks/tick-faqs#answers)