He started off by saying that even the Dalai Lama hates ticks. While that is difficult to verify, it could be true — but Buddhist teaching frowns on the killing of any living thing.
By the end of entomologist Larry Dapsis’ talk “One Bite Can Change Your Life,” at the WHRHS Performing Arts Center Wednesday, June 28, one could assume few came away with a Buddhist outlook on the issue of ticks and the infectious diseases they help spread, but they had some advice on how to prevent being bitten.
“This is a beautiful summer evening, and I can’t think of a better way to spend it than by having a very robust discussion of infectious diseases,” he said.
The talk, sponsored by the Plymouth County Beekeepers Association focused on protecting oneself, one’s yard and pets from pathogens that cause Lyme disease, babesiosis, anaplasmosis relapsing fever and Powassan virus carried by ticks found in the region. Dapsis holds degrees in environmental science from Fitchburg State University and in entomology from UMass, Amherst. He has worked with the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension Service for six years and 24 years in the cranberry industry with Ocean Spray before that. He stressed that, prior to joining the Cooperative Extension Service, he had little experience with ticks.
“I had a very vertical learning curve,” he said. “To address that, I read everything I could get my paws on, and talked with a ton of people. I had to figure out what the landscape really looked like.”
Even the word “tick” elicits a visceral response from people.
“When I say people hate them, I mean everybody hates them,” he said invoking the Dalai Lama. “When a gentle soul like the Dalai Lama turns his back on a form of life on this planet, that is a headline.”
Dapsis said the Dalai Lama had tweeted out his disdain for ticks a few years ago. True or not, who could blame him?
The six New England states rank in the top spots on most lists for the incidence of Lyme disease in the United States over several three-year average studies.
“If there is any question that we are living at Ground Zero with this problem, this should take it off the table right away,” he said. While Barnstable County used to regularly rank at the top for Lyme in the state, Plymouth County has overtaken Barnstable in that statistic. Part of the credit for Barnstable’s improvement has been its aggressive work against the Lyme vector.
He has advocated the hiring of an entomologist for Plymouth County, and that position has been budgeted with the expectation that one should be hired by this fall.
During a question session after his talk, Dapsis was careful to point out he is not qualified to answer medical questions, but focused on how the insects spread diseases. While he focused on deer ticks, Dapsis noted that climate change has brought more aggressive pests such as the Lone Star tick — which hails from Texas as the name implies — and the illnesses they carry.
“We’re seeing plants and animals where we never used to see them before,” he said, noting that three years ago, the first established population of Lone Star ticks was found on the Massachusetts mainland at Sandy Neck Beach Park in West Barnstable. Samples from the six-mile stretch revealed that Lone Star ticks “own that area” which is in a migratory bird flyway.
The concern with the Lone Star ticks is that they can see prey and run toward it, unlike the blind deer tick that has to “quest” for hosts on the end of vegetation.
“This is an aggressive biter,” Dapsis said of the Lone Star, known for laying eggs in clusters of thousands which hatch into hard-to-see nymphs that stick together. “Within minutes you can get overwhelmed with hundreds of bites and the older stages are also very aggressive. … They can run with spider-like speed. If they can see you, they’re going to chase you.”
The main danger of the Lone Star tick is that it spreads diseases such as erlichiosis and other illnesses, and can trigger a red meat allergy. That includes any foods, including marshmallows, made with red meat or its components.
“This can range from hives to anaphylactic shock,” he said.
Once attached to a host, all ticks secrete a glue-like material to hold themselves in place until its feeding cycle, which can last for days if not detected and removed, is complete. That cycle includes the secretion of anticoagulants into the host to ease feeding on blood as well as agents to deaden nerves to help prevent detection.
Some animals like mice, rabbits and birds known as competent hosts can harbor the Lyme disease bacteria and transfer it back into the tick population. People are among the incompetent hosts that cannot infect a tick, but are a food source for the insects.
How to protect yourself?
Dapsis advocates the liberal use of insect repellent since the highest rate of Lyme is among children ages 5 to 9 and in the senior population, who have the time to be outside. New England winters are not harsh enough to harm ticks in the winter and synthesize glycerol, a natural anti-freeze, to protect them from the cold.
Repellants are the first line of defense.
Dapsis is not a fan of all-natural products because they are not always EPA-registered. Products with DEET, eucalyptus oil or, to his preference — permethrin — which is used for treating fabric and footwear.
“It’s a real attitude adjuster,” he said. “This is the most effective tool in the box.”
Products like K-9 Advantix or Frontline or tick repellent collars can help protect your pet from the vectors. Check with your vet to determine what is best for cats.
Removing a tick should be done with pointed tweezers, grasping the insect at the head easing it out backwards.
“If you crush that tick, you just might give yourself a nasty infection,” Dapsis said. “A tick gut is full of microbes.”
Most people flush the tick down the toilet.
Instead, keep the tick, date it, and if possible send it to a lab such as the entomology department at UMass, Amherst (see tickreport.com) to determine what microbes it might be carrying. You may not test positive for an illness a tick carries, he said, but it is a “starting point for a conversation with your doctor.”