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June 1, 2020

5/22/2020 7:26:00 AM
Preventing tick bites is important year-round

A recent presentation entitled "Wisconsin Ticks," highlighted three tick species in Wisconsin. The webinar was presented by PJ Liesch, the director of the University of Wisconsin Insect Diagnostic Laboratory. While there are more than three types of ticks, there are three of special significance to humans in the state, he said.

Ticks in this general area arthropods, which puts them in the same family as spiders, centipedes and millipedes. While the larvae emerge with only six legs, they all have eight legs through most of their life stages.

Ticks, he said, have a life cycle involving three hosts over the course of their two-year life cycle. In their larval stage, ticks attach to a small host such as a rodent. After taking a blood meal from that host, they will drop off and move to a larger mammal for their second blood meal. Humans, pets, deer and larger animals such as these make up the last blood meal for the tick.

Contrary to some beliefs, ticks do not fly or jump, Liesch said. In fact, getting too far from the ground is quite unhealthy and may even cause tick mortality. Ticks need to be near a source of moisture. They are always in danger of drying out, a process called desiccation. Climbing high into a tree would be like suicide for a tick, Liesch explained. Ticks tend to position themselves on low hanging shrubs and branches. This way, if they start to dry out, they can return to the ground and find a source of moisture.

Ticks will hang onto these low-standing grasses, shrubs and trees and wait for an unsuspecting host to brush by. It will take a tick minutes to hours after finding the exposed skin of a host to actually attach themselves.

Liesch said ticks can be found in Wisconsin year round, even in the winter. He said ticks have even been seen in January. Ticks do not hibernate, but instead over winter under leaf duff and snow, where they are insulated from the harsh winter conditions. Any time the temperature is above zero and snow cover is gone, ticks can be found. However, people really start to notice ticks in the spring, and they are most common in spring when they are in their larval stage and then again in late summer and early fall when they reach adulthood.

While there are 20 species of ticks in Wisconsin, some of them are very specialized as far as their hosts, so humans do not interact with those ticks at all, Liesch explained. The three major ticks are the American Dog Tick (wood tick), the Lone Star Tick and the deer tick.

The Lone Star tick, as the name implies, is more of a southern tick, but it can be rarely found in Wisconsin. It can cause health concerns such as Ehrlichiosos, which is treated the same way as Lyme disease. In some, the reaction may be mild and not last long. In others, it may last a lifetime. It may cause anaphylaxis when eating red meat. It is unclear how these ticks came to Wisconsin, but they may have come with migrating birds.

The American Dog Tick, known as the wood tick, is not associated with any major disease in Wisconsin or the Upper Midwest. However, they have been known to carry Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Tularemia.

The tick most concerning, of course, is the deer tick. This is the tick that carries Lyme disease. Not all deer ticks carry Lyme disease and do not have it in the larval stage. It is not until they have taken a blood meal from a host with Lyme disease that they become a carrier.

Other diseases such as Anplasmosis, Babessis and Powassan virus are also carried by deer ticks. There may be other diseases carried by deer ticks, Liesch said, but the connection has not yet been made to the tick.

The disease got its name from Old Lyme, Connecticut, where a cluster of juvenile arthritis sprang up in the 1970s. However, the first symptoms of the disease were found in Wisconsin's very own Medford by a dermatologist by the name of Scrimenti in 1969. Eventually, the cause of these ailments was diagnosed as deriving from a deer tick. This was in 1982.


There are several things people can do to limit their exposure to ticks. One of those is to wear light-colored clothing that will allow ticks to be spotted more easily. Long- sleeved shirts and pants tucked into boots also give a person more time to spot a tick before it finds bare skin.

Repellents are a good idea, but each can be used in a different way, so users should consult the label directions for length of use and how to apply. Some are applied directly to skin while other repellents are applied to clothing only.

Liesch warned against homemade remedies when looking for protection from ticks. Many, he said, have no effectiveness at all, and some are very short-lived. For best protection, it is advisable to purchase and EPA-registered repellent. Those such as DEET, Picaridin, IR3535 and Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus are the most common in this category. Those that are registered with the EPA have proven effectiveness when used as directed, he noted.

Some clothing comes with repellent woven into the fabric. This repellent is called Permethrin. It was originally developed for the military and is very popular with hunters. However, it is just as effective for the average hiker or other outdoor enthusiast.

Liesch also warned to not forget pets doing tick season. There are a multitude of collars, topical and chews for both dogs and cats. There is also a Lyme vaccine for dogs. Pet owners should consult their veterinarian to decide the best options for their pets.

Liesch also went into ways to help keep ticks away from yards and landscapes. Ticks need a moist environment, so a turf lawn in the open, for example, is not good tick habitat. Instead the ticks will congregate around the edges of the yard where they can obtain the moisture they need to not dry out.

Limiting animal habitat, which goes against the grain of many outdoor enthusiasts, may be best in areas very prone to ticks. Ticks, he said, need hosts, and if a landscape is attractive to those hosts, such as rodents and even larger mammals, then ticks, too, will likely be present. Doing away with invasive species such as honeysuckle thickets and Japanese barberry is a best practice, as these thick shrubs are great hiding places for smaller mammals, who may be carrying ticks.

There are chemical treatments available such as broad spectrum insecticides, Liesh said. These are generally applied to an 8-10 foot area at the perimeter of the yard. There are several companies that can apply these insecticides. But, as always, land owners should understand the risks to any other species that may be on the landscape when deciding to use a pesticide of any kind.

Those looking for more information on tick identification or anything ticks, and download the Tick App from their cellphone's app store. This app also allows users to take part in a citizen science project by reporting where they have been during their day outdoors and what ticks, if any, they have encountered. Liesch's full article on ticks can be found on the Wiscontext website

Beckie Gaskill may be reached via email at

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