From spring to fall, the Hamptons are Lone Star tick country. But it hasn’t always been the case.
When entomologist Scott Campbell moved to Shelter Island in 1991, there were no Lone Star ticks to speak of on his slice of the East End, he recalled last week during a telephone interview. But his findings did not come as a surprise, he said, considering that all prior, local reports of the southern-based, aggressive tick species were confined to Montauk.
However, by the mid-1990s, Mr. Campbell began noticing Lone Star tick larvae in his neck of the woods, he said. The adult females—1/3-inch-long, brown to tan ticks most easily recognizable by the single, silvery-white dot on their backs—were laying eggs.
They were reproducing, he said. And they were spreading.
“As the deer population has increased and expanded west, that has given the opportunity for the Lone Star tick to feed in areas, new areas, where the deer are expanding to. Same for birds that pick them up as they migrate,” said Mr. Campbell, who heads the Suffolk County Department of Health Services Arthropod-Borne Disease Laboratory. “Now, they’re everywhere. And there is no safe time in Suffolk County. They’ll be active until they find a host.”
Unlike blacklegged ticks—formerly referred to as “deer ticks” and notorious as Lyme disease carriers—all three stages of the Lone Star tick, which include larvae, nymphs and adults, can feed on human blood. But these ticks are not known to pass on the infamous pathogen because they do not bite white-footed mice, which are a reservoir for Lyme disease.
That does not mean that Lone Star ticks aren’t dangerous, though, Mr. Campbell said. Sometimes known to carry ehrlichiosis, a bacterial infection, and Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness (STARI), the creepy crawlers are aggressive, fast and not the type to lie in wait. They need a blood meal in order to morph into their next stage and they have no problem searching for it, according to Brian Kelly, owner of East End Tick & Mosquito Control in Southampton.
“The Lone Star tick will be attracted to the carbon dioxide your body lets off and will come looking for you,” he explained last week during a telephone interview. “Tick season is already so bad this year. It’s only going to get worse. Protect yourself. Protect your family.”
Unsuspecting party hosts are the most frequent bite victims, not nature enthusiasts, hunters and hikers, Mr. Campbell said. Ticks are extremely widespread on the East End, he said, and it is almost impossible to avoid exposure altogether.
“You can’t spend your life indoors, so the best thing to do is to be aware of how to prevent tick bites when you’re out there,” he said.
The key is to think like a Lone Star tick. They do not fall from trees. They do not drop from birds flying overhead. They come from the ground and work their way up, many times to the area behind the knee or the groin, he reported. Once a tick attaches itself—not by burrowing into the skin, but by its hypostome located near its mouth that resembles a barbed stylus—it releases an anesthetic much like a mosquito does. Then it begins to feed.
“Ticks like tight, moist, warm areas that are safe. They’re not going to end up on the top of your thigh, necessarily, because it’s exposed,” Mr. Campbell said. “They’re going to go to a place where they feel comfortable, safe for feeding. They’re not going to crawl from your ankle to your head. They’re going to stop at your waist, belt or underwear. If you can feed in Southampton, why would you walk to Huntington to eat, you know?”
To prevent tick bites, tuck long pants into socks, wear a repellent and toss any exposed clothing into the dryer on high for 10 minutes. Get into a habit of checking out one another, as well as pets, which are major carriers, according to Mr. Kelly.
“Your spouses or significant other, give them a quick look-over. Not everyone can see in the middle of their back or other areas hard to see,” he said, and laughed, “Tick checks can be fun.”
It doesn’t take a trip to a nearby wilderness trail or sandy dunes to encounter a tick colony, Mr. Campbell said. More often than not, people are bitten in their own backyards, he reported.
Prevention begins with lawn care and maintenance, Mr. Kelly said. Keep the grass short and remove brush and leaves around the yard. Woodpiles and stone walls tend to attract rodents, which are feeding grounds for ticks, he said.
Cut down on watering to create dry, sunny landscapes where possible and keep swingsets away from the woods, he said. A tick-control spray—which can cost up to $300 a month, depending on the property size—never hurts, he said.
“I don’t want to scare people, but spray your yard,” he said. “Even if it’s not with me. It’s the best thing to do. There’s no 100-percent guarantee that’s it’s going to get rid of all the ticks, but it makes a tremendous difference. You can slow Mother Nature down, but you can’t stop her.”