PLYMOUTH — What’s one group that’s not following social distancing? Ticks, and an organization says its research shows that central and southern New Hampshire are just now entering the most prolific time of year for the ticks that are most likely to transmit disease to humans.
Of course, this spike in black-legged tick activity is occurring when fear about another disease — COVID-19 — is driving more and more people into the outdoors, as that’s one of the few places where they can recreate without coming into close contact with other people.
“The seasons have now shifted earlier,” said Kaitlyn Morse, a scientist who founded BeBop Labs, a nonprofit organization, in 2018. “According to our data, we find them as early as March, and they peak in May.”
Morse started the research organization to address what she saw as a lack of information and research into the growth of tick-borne diseases in New Hampshire. BeBop Labs is designed to leverage citizen science — it invites regular people to engage in the research by sending in the ticks that they find, along with some basic information about the circumstances in which they found the tick. BeBop Labs then records the information and, when deemed appropriate, has the tick tested for several diseases which are known to infect humans.
In 2018, BeBop Labs collected 1,654 ticks. Last year, 5,820 ticks were collected. That data showed that, although the larger dog tick has a fairly defined season that starts in April and ends in August, testing shows that, at least in New Hampshire, dog ticks are almost entirely free of diseases which infect humans.
It’s a different story with the much smaller blacklegged tick, sometimes called deer ticks. Blacklegged ticks, according to BeBop’s data, first show up in March, then climb in prevalence until May, then slowly taper off until August and September, though they’re still somewhat active even at the end of summer. There’s a secondary spike in activity for blacklegged ticks in the fall, and people continue to find them through December.
The data also showed that, although hiking is the activity most associated with finding a tick crawling on a person, it’s actually gardening or yard work that is most likely to result in a tick biting someone.
Bebop’s testing data showed reason for precaution, as they found infected blacklegged ticks in every month that they are active, and in all parts of the state except Coos County. In Belknap and Carroll counties, close to half of the blacklegged ticks were found to be carrying Lyme disease. BeBop also tested the ticks for borrelia, babesia, anaplasmosis and myamotoi.
So, if you’re heading out for some exercise, or yardwork, during this time of self-isolation, what precautions should you take? Wear long-sleeve shirts and pants, tuck shirt into pants and pants into socks or boots, wear light-colored clothing so that it will be easier to find ticks, walk in the middle of the trail to avoid brushing up against branches or bushes, and use a tick repellent.Morse specifically suggests permethrin diluted to 0.5 percent.
Over the past two years, Morse used herself as a research subject on the efficacy of permethrin use. She’s an outdoors lover who gardens, walks her dog twice daily, and goes for long hikes on the weekends. In 2018, she didn’t use any chemical to keep ticks away, and she pulled more than 300 ticks off herself that year. In 2019, she led the same lifestyle in the same place, with the only difference being that she sprayed her shoes with permethrin. Last year, she pulled only three ticks off of herself.
She also advocates for the use of “tick tubes” to limit the amount of blacklegged ticks in yards. To make a tick tube, fill a toilet paper or paper towel tube with cotton balls that have been treated with the permethrin dilution, then leave the tubes somewhere that small rodents will find them and use the cotton to line their nests. It’s the mice and squirrels that tend to harbor the ticks and bring them closer to humans, she said. Just don’t put the tubes near water, as permethrin is toxic to aquatic life.
“Permethrin for your clothes is better than DEET, is what I’ve found,” Morse said. “The FDA has also approved lemon-eucalyptus, but that has to be applied every hour.” The advantage for permethrin is that, once applied to clothing, it stays effective for at least 30 wash cycles — more if soaked in a more potent solution.
BeBop Labs, which has partnered with Plymouth State University and the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, now has a couple of interns to help with data collection and analysis, and they’ve collected enough grant and donation money so that the cost of the testing no longer comes out of Morse’s own pocket. She is hoping that 2020 will yet exceed the number of ticks collected and tested in 2019.
For more detailed results, visit beboplabs.org. If you collect a tick, and aren’t interested in having it tested yourself, put it in a zip-lock bag or secure it with tape and mail it to: BeBop Labs Tick Collection, PO Box 183, Salisbury, NH, 03268. Also record the date and location it was found, the number of ticks found, on whom it was found, where on that person or animal it was found, what the activity was associated with finding the tick, and whether it was crawling or biting.