Regardless of where you dwell in this great land, some of these critters live there too. Biting bugs can be merely annoying or make country life a living hell. Can you deal with nature’s blood-sipping nasties or do they drive you to distraction? If they do, take heart—there are ploys to help you cope.
Of roughly 850 named tick species, 82 reside in North America, including the Black-Legged (a.k.a. Deer), Western
Ticks are tiny arachnids, relatives of spiders. They dine on the blood of birds, reptiles and mammals, including humans, by sinking their barbed mouthpieces into flesh.
Salivary anticoagulants keep the blood flowing and a cement-like secretion glues them in place.
Tick bites are virtually painless. Sensitive individuals sometimes notice when a newly attached tick injects its body fluids but most hosts remain blissfully unaware they’ve been stabbed.
Since ticks neither jump nor fly, to pick up a tick you must brush against one waiting on vegetation to hitch a ride. So don’t venture into tall grass meadows, forests carpeted with leaf litter, brushy terrain or overgrown fields. Stick to wide, cleared pathways and stay in the center of trails. Don’t sit or lie on the ground or on rocky surfaces in tick country.
If you do live in a tick-infested area, or find yourself in one, watch what you wear.
Choose light-colored long-sleeved shirts, long pants and tall socks worn with shoes, not sandals. Tuck your shirttail into your pants and your pant cuffs into your socks.
Find ticks before they attach. Pause frequently to spot check clothing. When they can’t reach skin, ticks migrate north toward your head and neck. As part of spot checks, probe your hairline and behind your ears.
If they evade clothing barriers, they’ll head for tender spots like ankles and behind your knees. You’ll also find them on your tummy where your belt line halts further travel.
Clothing can be treated with Permethrin-based insecticides. Permethrin is highly effective but must never be applied to human skin.
Products containing N, N-Diethyl-3-Methylbenzamide, commonly known as DEET, also repel ticks, although not as effectively as Permethrin. DEET repellents can, however, be applied directly to bare skin.
After tick country outings, carefully inspect yourself, your children and pets, leaving no territory unexplored. Deer-tick nymphs are barely the size of poppy seeds, so you must look close. Ask a friend or spouse to examine your back and neck.
Homemade Skeeter Cheaters
Looking for safe, inexpensive alternatives to DEET-laced mosquito repellents? Give these a try.
Clothing worn in tick country should be treated to a two-cycle hot water bath or dry-spun in the dryer for at least 20 minutes; otherwise ticks may be lying in wait when you next put them on.
Woods walkers sometimes blunder through an encampment of “seed ticks” (nymphs) and find thousands crawling up their clothing. To remove them quickly, loop a strip of tape around your hand, sticky side out, blot them up, then dispose of the tick-studded tape.
A tick must be attached for about four hours to transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever; 12 to 24 hours to spread Lyme disease; 24 hours to transfer babesiosis parasites; and 36 to transmit erlichiosis.
If you find a potentially infected tick attached to you, your child or pet, you can possibly prevent disease if you get it off fast.
Wear latex gloves or use a tissue when handling ticks. Tick pickers can catch Lyme disease or Rocky Mountain spotted fever from exposure to tick body fluids.
Don’t touch a match or cigarette to the tick’s backside and don’t swab it with gasoline, cooking oil, fingernail polish remover or petroleum jelly.
And because a tick’s mouthpiece is barbed, not spiraled, you needn’t “unscrew” it during removal.
Folk remedies often irritate the tick and cause it to spit up additional toxins. Besides, most of them plain don’t work.
To remove a tick, use unrasped needle-nose tweezers, a hemostat, or any of the many inexpensive tick removal tools to grasp its mouthpiece, not its body, and pull it slowly and steadily straight out.
Don’t squeeze the tick!
If it leaves part of its mouthpiece imbedded in skin, disinfect the area with rubbing alcohol and use a sterile needle to carefully dig it out. Better still, plan a trip to your physician or vet for professional assistance.
Dispatch the tick by dropping it in a container of alcohol, or wrapping it in tissue and flushing down the toilet. Another solution: seal the tick inside a wide strip of tape before crushing it—don’t squash it with your fingernails.
When you’re finished, disinfect your tweezers and the bite site with rubbing alcohol and dab on a spot of antibiotic ointment. And if you aren’t certain what kind it is, drop the tick in a vial of alcohol or zip it inside a sealed plastic bag and take it to your vet or physician for possible identification.
Monitor the bite site, watching for secondary infection, abscess formation, or any sign of rash—and try not to scratch!
If an animal is host to a great many ticks, hand picking may be the only logical solution. Armed with latex gloves and a wide-mouth container of alcohol, gently grasp the tick near its head and gently pull it out.
In impromptu situations, step on the tick or crush it between two rocks. Use a fine-tooth flea or louse comb to remove unattached ticks from most any coated animal. And prevent infestation by treating horses and dogs with one of the new, long lasting spot-on insecticides containing Permethrin.
Eliminate farmstead tick habitat by clipping lawns short and keeping barn and outbuilding areas weed and litter free. Discourage favorite tick hosts such as rodents, raccoons and deer by removing food sources and winter shelter.
Chiggers, also called jiggers, redbugs and harvest mites, are among the tiniest of arachnids. Only the microscopic 1/125-inch larvae feed on blood; chigger nymphs and adults don’t bite.
Fight the Bite
Like ticks, chigger larvae wait on vegetation until a host appears. Once aboard, chiggers head for thin skinned or wrinkled anatomy such as armpits, inside elbows, behind knees, ankles and the human groin.
Chiggers neither burrow beneath skin nor do they suck blood. Instead, when it reaches attractive real estate, a chigger pierces its host’s skin, then injects anticoagulant and an enzyme designed to liquefy skin cells. It sucks liquid and lymph for about four days then drops off, leaving behind a hard red welt with a tiny, hard white center.
The bite itself isn’t painful nor does it itch. However, within a few hours of attachment, the chigger’s saliva causes surrounding tissues to harden, thus forming a hollow, swollen feeding tube called a stylostome. The stylostome itches intensely and the longer the chigger is attached, the deeper the stylostome and the more excruciating the itch.
Chiggers are at their worst around midsummer when daytime temperatures reach 75 to 85 degrees. They’re inactive when the mercury dips below 60 degrees. They prefer damp, shady spots but you can pick up chiggers most anyplace in nature. Besides humans, chigger larvae feed on other mammals, birds, even reptiles and toads.
To avoid chiggers, shun tall grass and similar chigger habitat; don’t sit or lie on the ground, and dress as though you were visiting tick territory.
If exposed to chiggers, take a hot bath or shower, use lots of soap, and scrub yourself dry with a terrycloth towel. Launder contaminated clothing in hot, soapy water for at least 30 minutes.
Because it’s the stylostome that itches, folk cures that call for dabbing chigger bites with nail polish, bleach, alcohol, ammonia or turpentine to kill offending chiggers simply don’t work. Nothing truly salves this itch but time.
Of the 2,500 or so mosquito species identified worldwide, roughly 200 of them live in North America. Because mosquitoes harbor numerous serious diseases—among them five forms of encephalitis including West Nile virus, dengue, yellow fever, malaria and canine heartworm, they are more than noxious pests.
Like most biting flies, both sexes feed on nectar but only the female drinks blood. She can spot prey up to 110 feet away and is attracted by carbon dioxide and lactic acid emissions, body temperature, dark colors, motion and floral scents. A mosquito requires blood protein to produce eggs, which she lays in marshes, ditches, puddles, slow moving rivers and creeks, lakes and ponds, ornamental pools, stock tanks and horse troughs, buckets, barrels and junk such as cans and old tires. She prefers grass and weed-sheltered stagnant water.
Most North American mosquito species dine an hour or two before, at, and for the same amount of time after dawn and dusk, although a few are strictly day or night feeders.
To avoid being bitten, stay indoors during peak mosquito hours. Wear light-colored, long-sleeved, heavy-duty shirts, pants, socks and hats when venturing outside during mosquito season. Avoid short sleeves, sheer fabrics, sandals and dark colors.
Best bets: mosquito-resistant garments like those manufactured by Squito Wear and The Original Bug Shirt Company. Forgo floral-scented personal-care products for the duration of mosquito season, and spray or slather yourself with a favorite insect repellent as often as needed.
Repellents containing DEET work best. The New York State Department of Health suggests adult consumers choose mosquito repellents containing no more than 30 percent DEET. Childrens’ products should contain no more than 10 percent. Higher concentrations don’t work better, they simply last longer.
Less effective alternatives include homemade or commercial products containing oils of citronella or eucalyptus, Avon Skin-So-Soft products, and Bounce dryer sheets wiped on exposed skin or suspended from clothing.
Install mesh screens in your home, keep doors and windows closed, and use mosquito-specific space sprays labeled for household use. But don’t buy a bug zapper; mosquito traps are a better option and don’t fry beneficial light-flying moths.
To best control mosquitoes, eliminate their breeding grounds. If an item holds water and you’re not using it, get rid of it. Dump and refill pet dishes, wading pools, bird baths, livestock watering buckets, horse troughs and stock tanks every two or three days. And drain ornamental pools, puddles, ditches, swamps and other organic water holders or treat them with biological larvicides.
Horse and Deer Flies (Tabanids)
Over 300 species of horse and deer flies, collectively called tabanids, call North America home. Horse flies are the “18 wheelers” of the insect realm, stout bodied and as much as one-and-a-half inches in length. Deer flies are smaller, most the size of common house flies. Only female horse and deer flies feed on blood and they do so by slashing a host’s skin with their sharp mouthpieces.
Most tabanids prefer feeding on horses, cattle and deer. Of the two, deer flies are most likely to bite humans; necks, the backs of hands and ankles are favorite targets. Deer flies’ incessant buzzing and dive bombing canbe every bit as annoying as their painful bites.
Tabanids enjoy warm, sunny days and are attracted by moving objects, warmth, and carbon dioxide emissions. They are day feeders.
Permethrin-based insecticides offer short-term relief to horses and other livestock and can be applied to clothing but not human skin. Other chemical repellents seldom work. Sturdy barrier clothing and Biocontrol Network Consultants’ non-chemical Tred-Not Deer Fly Patches (DETEX 231-832-2323) are best bets for humans afoot in deer-fly country.
Because tabanids are voracious but flighty feeders, often skipping from host to host to complete a meal, they spread many diseases including anthrax, bovine anaplasmosis, hog cholera, Potomac horse fever and equine infectious anemia.
Under sustained tabanid attack, horses and cattle cease grazing and huddle together for protection, resulting in weight loss and reduced milk production. Standard pheromone-baited fly traps won’t attract tabanids but HorsePal Horsefly Traps (Newman Enterprises) are an innovative visual-attractant that will.
Like most biting flies, both sexes feed on nectar but the female also drinks blood. Her bite is painfully out of proportion to her size. She slashes and sucks pooled blood like the tabanids, injecting an anticoagulant that triggers mild to severe allergic reactions in most humans. The swelling and itch that follows lasts up to two weeks or more. Hordes of black flies pose a serious threat. Mega-bitten hosts sometimes die from acute toxemia or anaphylactic shock.
Many black flies feed on birds, some on mammals, but a few prefer human blood. The buzzing, dive-bombing, skin-crawling antics of non-biting species coupled with the efforts of those that do, make early spring in forest and lowlands a woods walker’s worst nightmare.
Most black flies are daytime feeders and they rarely venture indoors. Biting varieties target ears, hairline, wrists, ankles and feet. They can’t bite through most fabric but readily burrow under clothing and into hair. DEET repellents are only minimally effective, and nothing works very well. Wear mosquito-barrier clothing and avoid endemic areas if you can.
No-see-ums, also called sand flies, sand gnats, punkies and biting midges are among the world’s tiniest biting flies. Most are dark gray or black with spotted wings. Only females suck blood, using the biting flies’ standard slash-and-suck mode to obtain it. Bites are initially painless but within eight to 12 hours, tissues swell and an intense itch sets in.
Most no-see-ums feed at dawn and twilight, from early spring through midsummer. A few species are daytime biters, especially active on damp, cloudy days. Both types frequent salt marshes, sandy barrens, riverbanks and lakes. Chemicals won’t repel them. Because no-see-ums bite through clothing weave, avoid snug shirts and pants. Loose-fitting, light-colored clothing or no-see-um mesh garments work best.
These tiny terrors are highly attracted to dogs and livestock, particularly their ears and lower legs. Gloss painfully chewed areas with a smear of petroleum jelly and keep animals indoors during prime feeding time. Fly masks with ears help protect horses.
Ticks, chiggers and biting flies are among nature’s nastiest creations, yet most can be avoided or controlled with some strategic planning.
About the Author
Sue Weaver is a freelance writer and hobby farmer who’s experienced her share of nature’s nasties down in Arkansas.
This article first appeared in the April/May 2003 issue of Hobby Farms magazine. Pick up a copy at your local newsstand or tack and feed store. Click Here to subscribe to HF.