The Spread of Ticks and Lyme Disease with Dan Wolff
You may not know it, but there is a lot going on in the world of ticks. Awareness of tick-borne illnesses, like Lyme disease, has grown dramatically over the past several years. And, due to a number of factors, ticks are becoming much more prevalent, even in suburban areas, especially in the Northeastern United States and now Canada. Based on his deep knowledge of these subjects, tick expert Dan Wolff, aka “Tick Man Dan”, President and Founder of TickEase, explains this dangerous “perfect storm.”
[Related Post: Tick Removal Options with Dan Wolff, Founder of TickEase]
Transcript of the Interview
Mark McLaren at Insect Shield: So we're here today with Tick Man Dan, Dan Wolff, one of the really high visibility experts on the tick. And we wanted to talk with Dan, because he's a good friend of Insect Shield. And we've, you know, worked with him a lot in the past. Great to get back in touch Dan, how's it going?
Dan Wolff: Oh, it's going great. Mark, it's a pleasure to be here. And yes, thank you for those kind words, I've always thought Insect Shield was a great company and doing a lot for the prevention of tick-borne illness.
MM: Thanks. And so this is kind of a kickoff interview that we're doing. Pretty informal. As, you know, our viewers may...guess. But we're just kind of interested in, you know, picking your brain a little bit, finding out what's going on in the world of ticks, and there is actually a lot of interesting stuff happening with ticks. And, insect-borne disease. Insect Shield obviously has an interest in all this stuff, because our clothing is, you know, one of the better ways to prevent tick bites. And you've got a product that you sell, that you created. So maybe we can talk about that a little bit towards the end of our discussion. So I don't know if you want to just tell us a little bit about how you got involved with the tick. And why did you choose the tick? I mean, what was so interesting about the tick?
DW: Well, sometimes in life, you don't choose things; things choose you. And I seem to be chosen quite a bit by ticks. As a matter of fact, I'm, first of all, I'm an avid outdoorsman. And so I've been tromping around out in the suburbs of Boston, in Massachusetts, for, you know, probably about 25 years now. And in that span of time, I've been bitten by more than 200 deer ticks. And so that's really why I got involved with sort of educating myself a little bit more, and getting more deeply entrenched and aligned with not only the Lyme community itself, but my favorite area of focus would be prevention. And that's why I think Insect Shield and, and my company, TickEase, work well together, although one is to keep them off you and one is to pull them off once they're attached, right. So we all know that even the best preventative measures often still could result in, in having a tick get through because they're very persistent. And they're very opportunistic, so they really find their way through a lot of our barriers.
MM: Yeah, that's as I understand it, too. And I mean, your website's got a lot of good tips and stuff around that. And, you know, I'm relatively new to Insect Shield and what we do here, but there's a lot to learn. And it's really great. I like a lot of the personalities, you know, that are in the industry. And like you said, I mean, there's a lot of good stuff going on with the Lyme prevention and awareness and treatment and so forth.
DW: Yeah, well, it's inevitable that that's going to go on because more and more people on an annual basis are suffering terribly from tick borne illnesses. And I don't just single out Lyme disease, because now we're worried about multiple different types of infections that you can get from these ticks. You know, as I mentioned before, I don't, I didn't choose ticks, they chose me, these are pulled off of my clothing. I mean, I didn't go out and sweep for these [are flagged for these], these, I walked around with this vial in my pocket for a period of maybe about four or five days. And this was a couple years ago. But these are all deer ticks, and they're all in the adult stage. And the adult stage deer ticks are much more likely to carry the pathogens that can cause infection, simply because they're older, and they've had a chance to take more blood meals. So it's pretty widespread in my area. And it is the prevalence of ticks and illness are increasing in the US. And globally, actually.
MM: Right. And there's a lot of factors to do with that, right, that are driving that. I mean, you know, you've talked about before. So what are some of the things that are contributing now to the spread?
DW: Well, I'll always come back to the Northeast, as my focal point here. But certainly the the ideas that I talked about are applicable nationwide and again in other countries. But there has been over the past few years kind of a perfect storm. Dr. Mather at University of Rhode Island, refers to it as ticknado. Like sharknado, I mean, [but] actually ticks don't fall from the sky.
MM: No, that's lucky.
DW: But there are a lot of different components that are that are causing so much activity in the ticks, and therefore resulting in more reported cases of illness. And some of those factors are, first of all, we all know that climates are warming. Yeah, and warm, moist climates are perfect for the life cycle of the tick, and the deer tick in Massachusetts and other parts. There's a Western black legged tick, and the deer tick, which is actually the black legged tick or ixodes scapularis. Lives about two years. So they have no problem in colder climates.
You know, it's not like a mosquito, where the first frost really kills them off until the next season. These ticks survive just fine through the winter. And even in some significantly cold areas like the north central part of the US, Montana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, where they have prolonged periods of time well below freezing or even below zero, ticks, it actually produces substance called glycerol, which is like an anti-freeze for their selves.
They can kind of go into this state called diapause, which is kind of suspended animation, okay. And then they can they revive very quickly, within a day or two of, of warming temperatures, even the middle of a harsh winter, they kind of emerge and they just, you know, they're hungry and they want to go find something. Something to eat, I was actually picking them up at a rate of about 40 to 50 per hour in the middle of February up here in Boston two years ago. Because they were just so kind of released into the scene as a result of some really bizarre unseasonably warm spikes in temperatures.
MM: I remember that. Yeah.
We had, you know, it was cold for January and the first part of February and then the temperatures went into like near 73 degree days. And by that third day, they were all over the place. But back to the components, right, we have things like warming temperatures, we have other factors. It's kind of complicated, but it's really fascinating.
MM: We've got time. I mean, it's all about the ticks, you know, so yeah, bring 'em on. We've got a good audience.
DW: Yeah, up here what we have is we have a lot of oak groves and, and sometimes it's referred to as a mast year you may have heard that expression, which means kind of the natural or the wild nut crops, acorns and beech nuts and hickory nuts are surprisingly plentiful. And sometimes you have a year where you don't see a lot of acorns. Sometimes you have a year where they're just you know, just unbelievable the amounts that you'll see. I mean, we've got some oaks in front of my house and you know the road with from the cars crushing them is just covered with a mushy a corny substance. So, but what likes acorns, okay, we have squirrels, we have chipmunks, we have other small rodents, in particular, the white footed mouse. Now I'm saying in particular, because these are the biggest violators when it comes to providing this, this, these pathogens and these microbes that cause infection, and they provide that to a tick. Okay, so a mouse is considered a competent host, meaning that they are viable in transmitting these pathogens. And these pathogens can occur naturally in these rodents. But, um, but they're not sort of it, some of these rodents don't have it, have these pathogens and some do. Now, for example, you have a deer tick.
MM: Is that actual size?!
DW: Yeah, it's actual size. I had to use pliers to pull this out. No, this is for demonstration purposes only. Actually, if ticks were this size, we would have a lot less Lyme disease because you would certainly be able to detect them before they were able to bite you.
Research has shown that most ticks when they are born from the egg are clean, meaning they can bite you no problem whatsoever. Yeah, there is now something showing up, which is disturbing. It's a variety of the borrelia, which causes Lyme. borrelia burgdorferi is the particular bacteria that causes Lyme. There's another one called borrelia miyamotoi, which causes illness. I don't know about the long term effects, but it's not a pleasant illness to get at all.
And what happens is, this is the only pathogen or the only infectious agent that has been detected in larval ticks, larval deer ticks, coming from the mother. Yeah, so that's very disturbing, because larval ticks are extremely small. And, but overall, in general, you can be relatively sure that most larval ticks are clean. Okay, what happens, the larval ticks hatch from the eggs, and they're ready to feed. So they wait on blades of grass or on leaves on the forest floor, or other areas near where their egg mass has hatched. So there's, there can be hundreds and even thousands of these little larval ticks and they don't go too far because they're so small.
The Lone Star tick, which has not been known to commonly carry Lyme disease, but can give you an allergy to red meat on stars are known for their swarming properties. So as larval and nymphs, they can you can get hundreds of bites at the same time, and people have been mistaking them for chiggers. Yeah. And I've never seen a chigger, we don't have them up here. And that's how it is. This idea is being dispelled because we don't typically have chiggers. I some people say, Oh, that must they must be chiggers, because there's 100 red welts on my ankle. But in fact, their Lone Star tick. So, of course, again, the younger the tick, the less likely that you'll have any problems with them. But still, it's not you're not out of the woods completely.
So when you have a lot of acorns, you have a lot of mice eating them. Yeah, you'll have warmer winters. So now you have a robust mouse, white footed mouse population, because they're like, we have all this food, we're gonna have our broods, as normal, where we can have, I don't even know how many, I don't know if you call them litters or not. But they can reproduce quite rapidly. Sure. And so now you have more competent hosts, for the ticks to feed on. Okay, so you have more ticks, because it's a milder winter, you have more disease or infectious agents available, because there's more mice. But back to my point where you have a clean tick, and a dirty mouse, the clean tick bites the dirty mouse, now you have a dirty mouse, and a dirty tick, right? Now, what's going to happen, this dirty tick is then going to go to another stage of life and need another blood meal. And it's going to go find a clean mouse,
potentially, it's gonna bite the clean mouse. And now you have another dirty mouse and the same dirty tick. Right? So this continues on through the life cycle, right? And, and that's how you kind of get the these naturally occurring bacteria, parasites and viruses are then transferred into this, which is known as a vector. And a vector is a delivery system for these microbes, brings it out of their own little ecosystem into other mammals, like people and pets and other larger animals.
So let's just summarize. You have warmer climates, you have more food for the mice, which increases the mice population, and you have more ticks surviving, feeding on the more mice with the more germs and then bringing them to people and other animals. Yeah. So that's kind of what's been going on.
And the other thing is that in addition to these ingredients for this perfect storm, you now have suburban areas, or suburban sprawl increasing throughout the United States pretty rapidly. And people say, Oh, well, that's the problem because we're building suburbs, infringing upon the wildlife areas where they where they live. I don't think that's true at all, what I think is happening is that the suburban environments are now a place where this wildlife can thrive, not just survive or get by, like they would in the bigger woods.
Let's take the deer, for example. It gets cold, the food sources disappear. There's other stresses on that population. And Mother Nature says, okay, 30%, I'm just throwing that number out there, 30% of this population is going to be dead. Because that's the way it is. That's how Mother Nature naturally controls deer populations. In the suburbs, instead of that 30% being killed, it's probably increasing by 30%, or even more, because now you have ornamental landscapes, which provide not only higher nutrition, nutritional value, but also higher caloric intake for the deer. So now they're just like you, I mean, people talk about their yards being a buffet. And that's exactly what it is for the deer. Yeah. But, uh, so now the deer, their birth rates increase. So in times of stress, maybe they have one fawn that survives. Now we're seeing twins and triplets, I've actually seen quadruplets up in our area. So we have deer, when that are born in the spring can actually get pregnant. That same fall. So one deer this year, turns into three next year, turns into nine the next year, and you know, and so on.
So, that that's just an example. But deer that example can be used for coyotes, foxes, and other types of animals. Now, one very important thing to note about the deer even though this is called the deer tick, deer are incompetent hosts. Their systems do not harbor these tick borne illnesses. They are simply a vehicle for egg laying, and for spreading of the ticks because unlike a mouse that may live under your shed, for its entire life, you have a male deer buck that can be transient and can travel and have a home range that could be between five and seven square miles, with the doe it's a little bit less because they're less transient, they're happy to stay in their home ranges. But if even if it's still a mile or two, that means that one deer is in your backyard tonight and could be two miles away, heading west just by chance. And they are known to be able to drop, you know, on average on a typical year, like five pregnant female ticks a day.
Each female tick can now lay two to 3000 eggs. Yeah. So you can see where I'm getting that in the bucks even further. So you have 10,000 eggs in your backyard tonight. You have 10,000 eggs in your neighbor's backyard, two miles west. And then you have those other family groups that are visiting that area. And it just it just keeps going on and on.
So to summarize, all these things play an important role. Sure. But they're not all necessary to keep the spread going. So if you pull out one component, you're still going to get the spread. Not gonna be as much so a lot of towns and communities are starting to implement deer management programs. Yeah, to help. I don't even think the intention is to reduce the population. I think it's just to stop it from increasing.
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