Don’t let summer pests bug you
Memorial Day weekend officially kicked off the beginning of summer and opened the door to all sorts of outdoor activities like backyard barbecues, hiking, trail rides and camping. Unfortunately, some uninvited company may be tagging along on those adventures - ticks and chiggers.
Summer 2007 is on track for a good year for ticks, at least for now, said Richard Houseman, associate professor of entomology at the University of Missouri.
Houseman said it’s often difficult to determine whether there will be an abundance of ticks in the future because each life stage faces its own challenges. Tick survival and abundance depends on finding hosts, or animals that they feed on. These animals are generally small mammals that can be found in your backyard, such as raccoons, squirrels and mice. Ticks also prey upon frogs and birds. Ticks prefer a warmer climate ranging from 40-90 degrees. If the weather is too hot or cold, or even too dry, the tick will become less active. Survival also depends upon the aggressiveness of tick predators. Some birds, reptiles and amphibians feed on ticks.
“We see the big adult ticks in the spring,” said Richard Houseman, associate professor of entomology at the University of Missouri. “We also see seed ticks in mid- to late spring.”
Many think that seed ticks are a tick variety, but they aren’t, he said. Seed ticks are the larval stage in the tick lifecycle.
The two tick species commonly found in Missouri are the lone star tick, which has a white spot on its back, and the American dog tick. Another tick, the brown dog tick, is usually found on dogs but is less common.
To avoid ticks, outdoor enthusiasts should stay away from tick habitats, which are transition areas between forests and fields where deer and small animals serve as hosts. If hiking or biking, stay in the center of the path. Tuck in shirts and pants, and use a tick repellant such as DEET, being careful to use concentrations of 35 percent or less. A new repellent, picaridin, is also available and has been shown to be effective.
Regardless, Houseman recommends checking for ticks after an extended time outside. If you find a tick on you, he said the most effective way to get the tick to loosen its hold is to pull it off with blunt-nosed tweezers.
“Grab next to the skin, and pull with slow, constant pressure,” said Houseman. “Don’t jerk or twist. This will leave mouthparts in the skin. Then, apply a local antiseptic to minimize the risk of secondary infection.”
Once a tick has begun feeding, it is impossible for them to voluntarily release their hold. Their mouthparts have been cemented into the skin. They must feed for four to six hours before there is a risk of disease transmission.
Another summer pest to watch for is chiggers. These little red bugs can be seen crawling around outside, but it’s the unseen parasitic larvae that cause humans to itch. Contrary to old wives’ tales, chiggers do not feed on blood, nor do they burrow under skin. Instead, chiggers feed on liquefied skin tissue, and this act causes the human host to itch. By the time the signature red welts appear, the chigger has long been scratched away.
Chiggers occur in habitats similar to ticks, but have a patchy distribution.
Homeowners can minimize their exposure to ticks and chiggers. “Vegetation management is the No. 1 strategy for prevention of ticks,” said Houseman. Keep grass and shrubs trimmed and manageable. Chemicals should only be sprayed in the yard after tick habitat has been reduced and used as a last resort.
Homeowners should also be aware of potential hosts they invite into their yards with squirrel and bird feeders.
“We have to try to find a balance,” Houseman said. “Minimizing clutter and overgrowth of vegetation in human environments will negatively impact ticks and their hosts.”
To learn more about ticks and chiggers, refer to MU Extension Guide sheet G7382, “Ticks,” and G7398, “Chiggers,” online at http://extension.missouri.edu.