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Why It’s a Bad Season for Ticks and Mosquitoes, According to This Bug Expert

Entomologist explains why we’re seeing so many ticks this year, and what to do if you get bit

Posted in: Faculty Voices

Sign warning of ticks in a forest setting

News reports and experts predicted an uptick (no pun intended) in certain bug populations this summer, and they’re spot on.

Here, Matthew Aardema, entomologist and assistant professor of Biology, shares information about why we’re seeing more ticks and mosquitoes – and what risks they may pose if you get bit.

What is the typical season for ticks and mosquitos?

Ticks can be active year-round, and it’s not uncommon to encounter ticks in December, January or February in New Jersey if the daytime temperature is above freezing.

Adult mosquitos will be most active during the hot summer months, but we may also encounter them in spring and fall, depending on temperatures and precipitation levels in a given season.

Why is it a bad season for ticks this year? Does the same apply to mosquitoes?

There are many reasons why one year may have higher tick densities than another. As with many animals, there are natural, cyclical patterns to tick population size. These are typically tied with yearly oak acorn production and mice densities.

These factors notwithstanding, one of the biggest contributors to the high tick densities this year is likely the mild winter we just experienced. Warmer temperatures throughout the winter mean that fewer ticks died during this time.

What environments do ticks and mosquitoes thrive in?

Juvenile mosquitoes need standing water to develop in, so wetter areas inevitably have higher densities of mosquitos. As there are many different species of mosquito that recognize humans as potential blood hosts, mosquitos will be encountered in almost any habitat type from dense cities to large forested regions.

Ticks are most commonly encountered in fragmented forests and forest edges. Larval ticks predominately feed on mice and other small rodents, so anywhere these are found in high densities will likely also have high densities of ticks.

What are common tick- and mosquito-borne diseases for the region?

The most common tick-transmitted pathogen is Borrelia burgdorferi, which is the bacterium that can cause Lyme disease in humans, pets and other domestic animals. The other tick-transmitted diseases that have been detected in New Jersey are Anaplasmosis, Alpha-gal Syndrome (AGS), babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, Powassan (POW) virus, Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF) and tularemia.

By far the most common mosquito transmitted disease in New Jersey is West Nile Virus. Jamestown Canyon Virus and Eastern Equine Encephalitis have also been reported from New Jersey.

How can we protect ourselves against ticks and mosquitoes?

The absolute best way to protect ourselves from ticks and mosquitos is to apply a DEET-based repellent to our clothing whenever we will be outside for an extended period. Wearing long sleeves, clothing that covers the legs, and a hat means the application of the repellent can effectively cover the whole body. Alternative repellents that do not contain DEET (the chemical that acts as the main ingredient in many insect repellents) are substantially less effective at preventing mosquito and tick bites.

We can also ensure that the areas around our homes don’t have locations where water can collect and therefore provide habitats for mosquito development. Even very small containers such as an empty water bottle can provide a habitat for mosquito larvae to grow in.

Lastly, as it takes an extended period of time for ticks to transmit a pathogen (approximately 24 hours), prompt removal is important.

After any time spent outdoors in tick habitats (effectively anywhere that isn’t asphalt/concrete) a thorough tick check is recommended. Any ticks found should be removed immediately, and the area of attachment monitored for the next few days for any signs of a rash or other abnormalities.

How do/should municipalities and county officials prepare for tick season?

The best and most important thing officials can do is provide accurate and timely information for residents. Other activities (e.g. spraying) often are ineffective and can be detrimental to non-target species such as bees and butterflies.

What to do if you get a tick bite?

Promptly remove the tick. Often a tick can simply be pulled off by hand, or failing this a pair of tweezers. More elaborate removal methods are unnecessary. After removal, wash the spot of the bite with soap and warm water, then apply a topical antiseptic cream such as Neosporin to the spot of attachment. Finally, be sure to monitor the spot for any signs of a rash or other discoloration, pain and/or swelling.

Do you predict climate change will continue to impact tick season/population? How so?

As winters become milder, greater numbers of ticks will survive from one year to the next. This will likely have the effect of increasing the incidence of tick-transmitted pathogens in New Jersey.