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Tick Hunt! 2017

Garth Brown |

I call this little beauty the Rope Actuated Tick Collection System, or RATCS. (The C is silent, or it's making the S sound extra long, so it's more like RATSSSSSS, whichever you prefer.) Towing it behind me, I set off up through the pasture, checking for results every fifty paces. By the time I got to the top of the hill I'd only found a tiny spider, a few leaf hoppers, and a couple things that looked like gnats but were probably something else. However, on my first drag in the woods I had a hit.

This made me assume the woods were positively alive with ticks, and I set off through them with a spring in my step. I scrambled across the steep bank where the last wilting ramps were receding into the soil, Oban pacing proudly at my side. (He has since been sprayed by a skunk, and as I write this he is outside beneath the picnic table, feeling a full measure of his shame, but that's a story for another day.) Yet after my hot start I couldn't turn up another of the little bloodsuckers for the life of me. I traversed the slope in its entirety, then went through the small stand of trees my old neighbors call the little woods without another hit. I zigzagged across a bunch of field, but I only caught more leaf hoppers. It wasn't until I went to the other side of the road that bisects the farm and ventured into another chunk of woods that I had my second encounter.

Which was followed not long after by ticks number three and four.

Around then I'd been at it for hours, and I was getting pretty bored, so I went home.

I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I'm happy that I had to work so hard to find relatively few ticks, since it means I may not be doomed to heavy doses of antibiotics at least once a year. But I was also already planning follow up studies that have now been shelved. If the data were more robust - like, double digit ticks in a short period - I would then have made duplicate RATCS. Using the results of the unmodified one as a control, I would have compared it to one with a chemical repellent like permethrin applied and another with an essential oil blend. Perhaps I'll replicate the study in the suburbs of Pennsylvania, where I suspect I could easily get larger samples.

I also wonder if the RATCS could be improved. Although it's impeccably engineered - take another look at the uppermost picture if you don't believe me - a larger drag area might be better, and it's possible that cloth with more nap would increase frequency of capture.

One cause for optimism is that no ticks were found in the pasture, and when I've found ticks on myself this spring it's been on days I've at least passed through the treeline. I've read that leaf litter is the preferred habitat of deer ticks, and both my anecdotal evidence and my rigorous scientific examination seem to back this up. As I've mentioned in the past, the emerald ash borer is killing all of the ash trees on the farm, meaning the woods will soon have far fewer deciduous trees, and large chunks of them will become silvopasture. Will this reduce local tick populations? One can only hope.

Final note - all ticks were dispatched after documentation.

Garth Brown

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