Spring has Sprung and we have just entered into Summer. Birds are out enjoying the warmth and the abundance of food as plants open up and start flowering and fruiting. The rains start to come bringing life giving water to plants and animals including mosquitoes. Oh well. The rest sounded good.
Spring and especially summer are the times of year when all the insects come out including the ones humans don’t like because besides being annoying they spread diseases.
The US Centers for Disease Control recently put out a report warning that mosquito, tick and flea illnesses are on the rise. Between 2004 and 2016 in the US disease cases from mosquito, tick and flea bites tripled and nine new germs spread by mosquitoes and ticks have been discovered or introduced.
There are 3,000 species of mosquitoes in the world. Only three species bear primary responsibility for the spread of human diseases, Anopheles, Aedes and Culex. The latter carries the West Nile virus. Their life spans range from 2 weeks to 6 months depending on the species and yet in that shot time mosquitoes transmit more diseases than any other creature. It is amazing that a creature weighing only 0.000088 ounces can invoke such, albeit justified, fear.
Believe it or not mosquitoes actually feed on the sweet sugary nectar of plants and other plant sugars. The ones sucking your blood are the female mosquitoes. The blood, or your blood, is used only to provide protein for her eggs. Male mosquitoes do not have the mouth parts necessary for sucking blood. The female uses exhaled carbon dioxide, body odors, temperature and movement to seek out her target. She then use her proboscis ( that long tubular thing coming from her head. The nose on your face, the sucking tube on hers.) to stab two tubes into the skin. One tube injects an enzyme to stop blood clotting and the other tube sucks the blood into her body. The red bump and itching you get is an allergic reaction.
The good news but not great consolation is that humans are not the preference of mosquitoes. They prefer the blood from horses cattle and birds. Maybe because they don’t scream, run and swat all at the same time.
Water is needed to complete the breeding process so treating or dumping standing water is important.
So where do mosquitoes fit in? They are a reliable source of food for thousands of animals including bats, birds, dragonflies and frogs. So making your environment bat, bird, dragonfly and frog friendly by not using poisons in your yard is one natural way of getting the mosquito population under control.
Ticks are not insects but in the class Arachnida, you know spiders, scorpions, mites and opiliones or “daddy-long legs” (not the spider.) Arachnids have 8 legs. Within that class there are several orders. The order Acari is the one mites and ticks come under. Ticks fall under two families, the hard tick ( family Ixodidae ) and the soft tick ( family Argasidae ). Soft ticks live in arid regions throughout the western half of the US and southwestern Canada. They transmit Tick-borne relapsing fever (Borrelia hermsii, B. parkerii, or B. turicatae). Hard ticks live mostly in the eastern US but there are a few species of hard tick living in parts of the west coast. All these ticks mentioned spread disease to humans. The Lyme disease that is on the rise is mostly in the northeastern pat of the United States. It is spread by the black legged tick, a hard tick which lives throughout the eastern US and the upper midwest. For reasons not yet known Lyme disease is not prevalent in the southeast.
Ticks have four developmental stages, egg, larval (when they have 6 legs), nymph (when they get their 8 legs), and adult. It is the nymphs and adult females that feed and transmit the disease.
As you probably already know it is Spring Summer and Fall when the ticks are most active and transmit disease. They can be active in winter whenever the temperature gets above freezing. Each stage varies in length and a ticks life cycle can take up to two years or longer. Each developmental stage requires a blood meal for them to molt and move on to the next stage. The adult female tick needs to engorge herself with a large meal to lay her few hundred to several thousand eggs. She will die shortly after.
They start their hunt for their host using cues like changes in temperature and day-length using detection of carbon dioxide, ammonia, and host body heat to find their target.
When they are not hunting they spend their time in leaf litter burrows or nests of their hosts.
Some species of ticks crawl toward their host and others, like the black legged tick, stretch out their front legs waiting to attach to a passing host. This behavior is called questing. Their front legs have specialized organs on them for detecting carbon dioxide gradients and other volatile odors from approaching hosts. Adult ticks hunt in tall grass and shrubs while Immature ticks are more likely to remain near the leaf litter or lower in the vegetation where they mostly encounter small rodents and ground-visiting birds.
It is the female hard tick who can expand her body when feeding. Soft ticks have many short meals as do male hard ticks. So it is the adult female hard tick that can engorge herself with a large blood meal.
Ticks overall have a wide range of host preferences. Some species are very specific and only feed on one kind of animal while others are generalists. Ticks will feed on birds, reptiles and mammals.
If the environment is not just right or the days are shorter ticks may enter a state of arrested development, called quiescence, where they may delay looking for hosts, development or egg laying.
Deer are often blamed for spreading Lyme disease since they do carry ticks, but as The Tick Project found, deer do NOT carry Lyme Disease. Rodents like mice and chipmunks do, specifically the white-footed mouse. Controlling mice populations is key in controlling the spread of Lyme Disease not reducing deer populations.
The Project also found that a naturally occurring fungus is effective in killing ticks. It has been made into a commercial fungal yard spray that they are testing.
What to do…
While we will not cover what you can do to protect yourself we will give you a few things to keep in mind. The CDC report covers prevention.
While the report mentions some behavioral things you can do to keep safe such as wearing long pants and long sleeves, stay on trails and out of bush, etc. they do mention some chemicals.
The report recommends using permethrin for ticks and mosquitoes. It is a synthetic version of pyrethrin which comes from chrysanthemums. BE WARNED! Pyrethrin and permethrin used in sprays for humans and flea sprays for dogs is toxic to cats! You can read more about it at the American Association of Feline Practitioners.
The CDC report also recommends using products containing DEET. Naturally, at Forgotten Nations we prefer natural ways to protect yourself for your safety and the safety of the environment. DEET is a toxin and it is recommended you use it only if safer alternatives do not work. People have gotten ill from using it three days in a row. There are many natural alternatives out there. There is one product we have used here that has been more effective than the DEET products we used years ago. That is Sting Free™ Insect Bite Protector by Gardens Alive.
Completely eliminating these insects is not and should not be an option. They are part of Nature whether humans like it or not. In living with Nature we have to take the good with the bad. Like all other animals we just do our best to stay safe from the bad.
The reason for the rise and spread of these insects and arachnids and therefore the diseases they carry are due to Climate Change creating longer summer months and warm regions moving north, and forest fragmentation. Some say it is reforestation but we are shrinking our forests and the ones we do reforest are small thus creating small fragmented forests. These small pockets are not large enough to support the complete ecosystem. There is not enough room or food to support the top predator for that area. As a result you do not have the biodiversity that was once there and so you end up with an unbalanced system. Since birds and bats eat mosquitoes and opossums eat ticks you want habitats that support them. While we don’t know exactly what will attract them to an area we do know a complete diverse system does provide space for them. Even more important are the predators. Since rodents transmit diseases like Lyme disease controlling their numbers is important. An ecosystem that supports the predators like foxes and coyotes who eat rodents keeps the rodents in check and has less incidence of Lyme disease and other illnesses the ticks carry. In areas where there are large tracts of land with a diverse ecosystem with a variety of wildlife and top predators the incidence of Lyme disease went down. In small tracts of land with an incomplete system and not much diversity cases of Lyme disease was higher. That’s right, the solution to controlling ticks is more wild lands.
So while we humans may not like these creatures and the diseases they carry, neither does a lot of the wildlife for that matter, as usual the natural environmentally friendly solution is the best direction for controlling the spread of these diseases. The Tick Project emphasizes “Expanding tick populations, climate change, and forest fragmentation are all expected to contribute to the continued spread of Lyme disease…” So it makes sense that ending Climate Change, saving the planet and stopping forest fragmentation by expanding large diverse connected ecosystems and habitats seems to help a lot of our problems, even Lyme disease.