Adobe Stock | malykalexa777
Local tick biologist Ashley Kennedy explains how these arachnids behave in Delaware, how to avoid them and what to do if you’re bitten.
It’s a cool spring day in Bellevue State Park; horses are grazing peacefully, and the breeze is light. But Ashley Kennedy, Ph.D., B.C.E., isn’t here to enjoy the mild weather. She unfurls what looks like a large white flag and begins to pull it through and over the brush and leaf litter on the edges of the trail. A few curious onlookers watch as she walks 10 meters, stops, records her distance on a tracking device at her hip and peers intently at the white cloth she’s holding. Tiny specks of dirt and leaf cling to the fabric, but that’s not what she’s looking for. Kennedy lowers the flag and begins to sweep it over the foliage again. After another 10 meters and a closer examination of the fabric, she finds it: a miniscule, blood-sucking arachnid waiting for a host.
Most people don’t want to find ticks when they go into the woods, but Kennedy, our state’s only tick biologist, has important research to conduct.
This flag-sweeping process is known as “dragging.” Once she finds a tick, Kennedy carefully places it in a vial of alcohol for further study. She can immediately name the species by looking at it—deer (blacklegged) tick, dog tick, Asian longhorned tick, lone star and more. (She’s found 16 different species in Delaware). She keeps track of which species are in different parts of Delaware, what kinds of pathogens they can transmit and their levels of infectivity. This is critical because tick populations and species are changing in Delaware: As climate change impacts our environment, rates of infection have gone up, populations have drastically increased and species normally found in the southern United States have crept upward into the First State.
“For example, the Gulf Coast tick used to be restricted to the Gulf Coast region of the United States, and now it’s all the way up to Connecticut,” Kennedy points out. “It’s one of our most common species in Delaware now. Our most common, by far, which makes up about 97% of the ticks that I collect each year, is called the lone star tick. That one used to be much more common in the southeastern United States, but again, it’s creeping north.”
Your Best Defense Against Ticks
So how can you avoid these infection-transmitting menaces? Kennedy notes that you should stick to the center of the trail when you venture into the woods. Ticks stay low to the ground and congregate at the edges of paths, waiting for a host to walk by and provide them with their next blood meal, a behavior known as “questing.” They usually grab onto hosts below the knee and climb upward. They also prefer humid environments, foliage and long grasses.
“They can’t jump [or] fly or fall out of trees, so as long as you aren’t touching the plants that they’re hiding in, they really don’t have an opportunity to grab onto you,” Kennedy explains. Wearing bug repellent and “tick-safe attire” are also key. Light-colored clothing makes it easier to spot ticks, and long sleeves, a shirt tucked into pants and pants tucked into socks reduces this critter’s chances of attaching itself to you.
If You’re Bitten…
If you’re bitten by a tick, it’s important to remove it and keep it—in a plastic bag in the freezer is a good place—in case you get sick later. If you do get sick, identifying the species of the tick that bit you is crucial. “A lot of people don’t realize that not all ticks are equally dangerous,” Kennedy notes. “There [are] different risks and different likelihoods of risk associated with each species.”
To identify the tick, take it to your doctor or visit de.gov/ticks, which provides numerous resources that can help you to identify it on your own. You can even send a photo of the insect to Kennedy if you need help.
If you’re bitten by a tick, it’s important to remove it and keep it—in a plastic bag in the freezer is a good place—in case you get sick later.
“I often get asked, ‘Is this going to be a bad year for ticks?’ And tick professionals joke that it’s always a bad year for ticks. …But in 2023, all signs are pointing toward this being an especially bad one,” Kennedy warns. “We’re seeing certain tick species and life stages show up in our surveillance sooner than expected, and sometimes really significantly early.” For example, she started collecting blacklegged ticks in mid-March, as opposed to May or June, and lone star ticks in February, also a few months ahead of schedule.
“So, it seems like all bets are off this year.”