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A few good things (and the obvious bad ones) about ticks

Let me lead off with a “good” fact about ticks, even though it involves another one of Michigan’s maligned creatures: A single opossum can eat thousands of ticks every season.

Say what you will about the opossum, whose leathery tail and scraggly fur strike a chord of disgust in some people, but the thought of opossums chowing down fistfuls of ticks like movie-theatre popcorn is equal parts nauseating and delightful. If you like opossums and hate ticks, the upshot is that ticks sustain a good part of an opossum’s diet between meals of other bugs, rodents, and the occasional animal skeleton (they like the calcium).

Still need more convincing that ticks serve a purpose? Finding large populations of ticks on your property may mean there are too many rodents around and not enough predators, like owls, to keep their populations in check. Installing owl boxes can attract those beneficial birds of prey, addressing both the rodent and tick problems in one swoop.

Just as you won’t find many words praising mosquitoes, it’s hard to think of nice things to say about ticks. They’re creepy, crawly bloodsuckers who make us squirm in our sleeping bags and spread some awful diseases.

Black-legged ticks, also known as deer ticks, are the species we’re most likely to encounter in northern Michigan. Their special abilities and tools make them incredibly efficient and dangerous parasites.

Among those is a behavior called “questing,” whereby a tick clings to a blade of grass with its hind legs and fans the air with its arms. While it may look like it’s grasping at thin air, it’s really using specialized organs to sniff for the stuff its prey puts out: carbon dioxide, pheromones, ammonia, and body heat. That is why ticks congregate in areas along trails where hikers and deer leave their smells behind.

Once their arms latch onto a host, a tick will spend hours searching for a part of the body where it’s dark, warm, and safe to feed. Their low profile makes them hard to notice, especially once they reach skin underneath clothing. To feed, the tick inserts a straw-like probe called a hypostome, bristling with backwards-facing barbs, to stay attached.

That is the point where things start to get dangerous.

Black-legged ticks can transmit Lyme disease, a bacterial infection causing headaches, fever, fatigue, and rash. Lone star ticks, identifiable by the white star on their backs but not commonly found locally, can pass a carbohydrate molecule into the body causing a severe allergy to red meat that can last several years.

A tick that’s actively feeding needs to be removed properly. Use flat-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible and pull straight out. Don’t try to remove a tick by burning it or spraying it with chemicals — that can cause the tick to regurgitate into its host and increase the chance of passing an infection.

Keep the tick for identification purposes in the event you get sick.

Thankfully, tick-borne illnesses are rare in Northeast Michigan, and there are plenty of things we can do to avoid tick attachment, starting with the way we dress.

Wearing light clothing shows ticks better and tucking our pants into our socks keeps ticks from getting up under our pant legs. It may not be stylish, but it’s safe.

“I’m personally hoping we can start the socks-over-pants trend,” said Jen Klemm, the Huron Pines AmeriCorps member who hosted an online presentation on ticks in April. “I think that would be a fun look for 2020 — masks on our faces and funky socks over good field pants.”

Other measures include wearing insect repellent on the lower half of your body, treating pets for fleas and ticks, and conducting regular “tick checks” in the field and at home.

As with anything else these days, technology has gotten involved. The Tick App is a free smartphone app with information on ticks, a photo feature to help with identification, and activity logs for aiding with research. The app was conceived to allow people living in areas with high risk of Lyme disease to participate in a study being conducted by Columbia University and University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Find out more at thetickapp.org.

Klemm’s April 23 presentation on ticks can be found at huronpines.org/stay-connected.

Chris Engle is Communications Associate for Huron Pines, a nonprofit organization based in Gaylord and Alpena to conserve and enhance northern Michigan’s natural resources to ensure healthy water, protected places and vibrant communities. Learn more at huronpines.org.

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