Warm weather drawing out more humans than ticks

If you’re feeling a little “ticked” this spring you’re not alone. But don’t blame the wee arthropods because they are just doing what they always do, entomologist Kateryn Rochon says.

The University of Manitoba professor said ticks are normally active this time of year, and generally become active as soon as the snow melts and temperature rises.

And although the unusually warm spring hasn’t done much to change tick behaviour or increase their numbers, it has inspired changes in human behaviour, which have brought the two species into greater contact.

“It appears the ticks have come out earlier, but in reality it’s just about the same,” she said. “Ticks are normally out this time of year, but usually people are not.”

The professor noted the 2011 flood also kept many farmers and hikers away from tall grass and areas of landscape transition favoured by ticks.

“People have a tendency to forget as well, especially when things are bad, like with the flood, so ticks weren’t really on people’s minds last year,” Rochon said.

But dry conditions this spring have Manitobans thinking about ticks again, especially after a warm spell in February caused some ticks to become active.

Those ticks however, retreated back into leaf and grass litter as soon as temperatures dropped, Rochon said.

Staying indoors is the only surefire way to avoid ticks, but the entomologist doesn’t advocate that approach.

“There are ways to avoid tick bites,” she said.

Geek in vogue

Tucking shirts into pants, and pants into socks — the geeky look — is a good way to keep ticks on top of your clothing where they can easily be seen and removed.

“Ticks aren’t jumping off oak trees and landing on people’s heads,” said Rochon. “If you find them on the top of your head it’s because they climbed all the way up there.”

She also suggests wearing light-coloured clothes so ticks can be easily spotted before reaching the upper body.

Livestock may have more trouble avoiding ticks, but keeping cattle out of tall grass and away from the edges of scrub brush between April and the end of June will lessen the chance they will pick them up.

“You do get ticks on cattle, but it is more of a nuisance,” said the professor. “Very rarely will you have problems related to the ticks.”

She added ticks may be more of an issue with horses, which are often placed in lower-quality pasture land where ticks are more prevalent.

Although wood ticks are still the most common species of tick found in Manitoba, deer ticks — also know as black-legged ticks — are present as well.

“Deer ticks are relatively new to Manitoba,” said Rochon. “They are smaller than wood ticks and they are the ticks that can carry Lyme disease.”

Lyme disease has been a reportable disease in Manitoba since 1999 and in 2009 the province adopted national case definitions for reporting to ensure consistency in tracking the disease.

Last year there were seven confirmed and four probable cases in Manitoba.

Part of Rochon’s research will focus on how deer ticks disperse once they move into a new geographic area.

“It’s an exciting moment for someone who works on ticks in Manitoba,” she said. “We’re at the very special moment when the ticks are coming in and dispersing, and it’s the one opportunity we have to figure out how this happens, because once it’s done, that’s it, the moment is gone.”

Rochon, who joined the university’s entomology department in January, said Manitoba’s landscape and harsh winters mean information gathered elsewhere about tick dispersal isn’t applicable locally.

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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