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Tick-ed About Bug Bites? - July 9, 2017

               Warm weather means shorts, t-shirts, tank tops and flip flops, but it also means ticks, chiggers and mosquitoes here on the Eastern Shore. These annoying, irritating, and potentially dangerous biting insects thrive here in Maryland during the summer and can make any day outside miserable.

                There are several species of tick that live in Maryland including the American dog tick, the brown dog tick, the deer tick, and the lone star tick. Ticks are small and dark, often black or brown colored and only about 1/8 of an inch long before attachment, which is why they are so difficult to find when they are on your body.

                These tick species prefer slightly different habitats; however, the brown dog tick tends to survive the best indoors out of all these species but suffers outside in woody areas. The American dog tick, deer tick, and lone star tick are often found in wooded areas or fields with tall grass, anywhere there might be high traffic for larger mammals such as deer, foxes, dogs or people for them to latch on to.

                Ticks will attach themselves to their host and travel around the body in search of a preferable feeding spot, like the back of a knee, the back of the head or around the armpits, where they will insert their mouthparts into the skin and begin sucking out the host's blood. If not found and removed, adult ticks can feed on a host for days until becoming engorged and several times larger than its original size.

                In Maryland, we have around 59 species of mosquitoes, each uniquely suited for the wide array of habitats that they inhabit. Mosquito species are locally abundant, which means they have high populations in small areas or habitats, however there tends not to be much overlap in species habitat.

                Mosquitoes belong to the order Diptera, or True Flies, and all species must spend some portion of their life in water, mostly the larval and pupal stages. When adult mosquitoes first emerge from their aquatic stages, they mate, and then the female goes off to find blood to provide protein for her fertilized eggs, which she then lays in a moist area or in water.

                While there are both male and female mosquitoes, only the females "bite." Only the females have the proboscis necessary to suck blood, while the males feed on plant nectar and lack the mouth parts necessary to break the human skin.

                Chiggers are very similar to ticks; however, there are some distinct differences. The chiggers that bite humans and other mammals are the juvenile, or larval, form of a mite of the family Trombiculidae. Chiggers are red mites that are extremely small, less than 1/150th of an inch long, and can really only be seen when they congregate in larger numbers.

                Like ticks, chiggers live in vegetated areas, like the woods and open fields, and will attach themselves to large mammals that walk by. These tiny mites will migrate around the skin until they find an optimal feeding area with thinner skin, such as the ankles, behind the knees or armpits. Contrary to popular belief, chiggers do not bury themselves in your skin to feed. Chiggers insert their feeding structures into the skin and inject certain enzymes that cause destruction of host tissue, whether it be human or some other kind of mammal. Hardening of the surrounding skin results in the formation of a feeding tube called a stylostome, which is what causes the severe skin irritation. Chigger larvae then feed upon the destroyed tissue of the host until dislodged, killed, or engorged.

                While all three of these insects feed on larger mammals and humans, only ticks and mosquitoes are true vectors, or carriers of diseases. Thus far in Maryland, chiggers have yet to be connected with transmittable diseases to humans. However, intense scratching at the infestation site can lead to secondary bacterial infections.

                It is important to be wary of ticks in Maryland since they are potential vectors for tularemia, Lyme disease, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. All three diseases can be found in Maryland; however, Lyme disease is the most prevalent. Mosquitoes are vectors for several diseases as well including malaria, yellow fever, zika, and West Nile virus. Only West Nile virus has been known to occur in Maryland.

                There are several ways to help prevent getting bitten by one of these troublesome insects. The best way is to wear long clothing, like pants and long-sleeved shirts, when traveling in woody areas or open fields, as this will help to keep ticks and chiggers from attaching themselves to your skin while outside. Bug and insect repellants are also useful as these will help to keep mosquitoes away as well as other insects, such as horse flies or gnats.

                Preventative measures may not be enough, so after a day outdoors everyone should give themselves a full body tick and chigger check to see if they have any unwanted hitchhikers.

Jackson is the former Education Coordinator for Maryland Coastal Bays Program. 



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