We're in the middle of insect season, and have been for some time thanks to our recent wet weather.
Insects first emerged from our ancient oceans over 350 million years ago, and humans entered the scene some 349 million years later. "Bugs" have been around a lot longer than we have. In the interim they evolved into truly efficient and adaptable critters.
It's estimated that there are more than one million species of insects in the world and North America is home to 90,000 of those species. To give you a good handle on just how many insects there are, it's estimated that at any given time their total weight is over 11 million tons -- about the same as the total weight of all humans. Most insects are relatively harmless but they can be a nuisance and, in some cases, downright dangerous. Let's look at a few species you're likely to encounter here in the Adirondacks and explore methods used to cope with them.
The earth is host to some 60,000 species of flies and they're amazingly adaptable, living in everything from hot springs to climates as cold as the mid-teens. In this area our most troublesome are black fies, horseflies, deerflies and, of course, houseflies. The best way to avoid their attention is to keep your body and clothing clean, stay in breezy areas and use a safe, effective repellent.
For me, that advice generally works on everything but deerflies. They'll find me wherever I am and whatever I do, and the welts they raise are truly works of art. Remember that, unlike other insects, deerflies don't sting, they bite. Look at one under a microscope or magnifying lens and you'll see mandibles shaped something like scissors.
Now let's turn to mosquitoes, or skeeters, whichever you prefer. There are 200 species of mosquitoes in North America alone, and they do more than feast on humans and create an annoying itch. Skeeters are effective transmitters of disease and each year they cause over 100 million cases of malaria worldwide, resulting in over one million deaths. Here in the United States, mosquitoes in California are known to carry malaria and in virtually every other state they can carry encephalitis.
Your best defense against these pests is to avoid their favorite locations and times of day. They tend to bite most at twilight and they like cool, dark, moist habitats. If your fishing or hiking trips take you into mosquito country, keep as much skin as possible covered and use a brand name DEET-based or permethrin repellent.
We could next discuss chiggers, fire ants and fleas, but let's turn now to the real topic of this week's column, ticks. Tick bites are not painful but these critters can be a deadly nuisance and carry a greater variety of diseases than any other insect, from Rocky Mountain spotted fever to encephalitis to Lyme Disease.
Lyme Disease has now been reported in virtually every state and has reached near-epidemic proportions in some areas of the East Coast down to the Carolinas, and even out in portions of the Northwest. The worst months for tick bites are May through August. Careful screening after outdoor exposure is the best defense. It takes four to six hours for ticks to embed their mouthparts beneath the skin, and about a day for the feeding process to begin.
If a tick is found, it can often be removed safely by grasping its head with tweezers and pulling straight up. After the tick has been removed, the skin should be treated with hydrogen peroxide or other effective antiseptic and the area watched carefully for the next several days. If a bulls-eye rash develops or flu-like symptoms occur, immediate medical attention is necessary.
Lyme Disease is easily treated with antibiotics in its early stages but, if left unattended, it can cause permanent problems including, but not limited to, arthritic joints, severe headaches and even abnormal heartbeats.
Lyme Disease typically progresses through three stages, though this progression is not necessarily the same in all cases. In Stage 1, the earliest stage, people with the disease may have any combination of the following symptoms: headaches, fever, chills, nausea, spreading rash, aching joints and fatigue. Stage 2 may appear weeks or even months later and could include various degrees of heart ailments, nervous system abnormalities or facial paralysis. At Stage 3, arthritis is the most commonly recognized long-term sign of Lyme Disease. This can be sporadic in nature and may reoccur months or years later.
Treatment normally involves various antibiotics and will usually prevent later complications. During later stages treatment often requires more intensive antibiotic therapy. Prompt treatment is important, and your physician will make a diagnosis based upon signs and symptoms, lab tests and information you provide about recent travels, tick bites and related data.
Let's assume none of the above takes place because you've been careful and have followed some basic rules to avoid tick bites. Here's what you did. First, ticks don't fly or jump on their hosts. They wait atop grasses and other vegetation until something brushes against them. Then they cling to skin, fur or clothing. One of the things you did was wear light clothing when you were out in tick country. It doesn't deter ticks but it does make them easier to spot. Then you were careful to tuck your trouser cuffs into your boots or socks. You also wore long sleeved shirts with the cuffs buttoned. In short, you did everything to prevent the ticks from getting at your skin if they got on your clothing.
You also used an effective tick repellent, one containing permethrin or DEET though, personally, I prefer permethrin. While DEET is unquestionably effective in repelling ticks, it is a chemical and is best applied to clothing rather than directly to the skin. Still, care is required. The active ingredient in DEET-based repellents is a plastic compound that might damage eyeglass lenses, watch crystals, wood finishes and many synthetic fabrics. That's not likely to happen during normal usage but it is a remote possibility, especially if the manufacturer's directions aren't followed carefully, and should be considered.
A combination of preventive actions and the use of an effective tick repellent can minimize your chances of becoming a victim of Lyme Disease.