Tick Time – Check Yourself!

High tick season in Nebraska is generally April through June, but ticks can be active all year round when temperatures are above freezing. With the arrival of spring and an increased involvement in outdoor activities, Nebraskans must be prepared to practice tick safety to prevent tick-borne illnesses.

Ticks are blood feeders and have the potential to vector some serious diseases of both people and pets. The three most common ticks found in eastern Nebraska are the American dog tick, Dermacentor variabilis, lone star tick, Amblyomma americanum, and black-legged tick, Ixodes scapularius. Only the black-legged tick is capable of transmitting Lyme disease.

Tick-borne Illness

Until recently, Nebraska did not have established populations of black-legged ticks, and past cases of Lyme disease were considered rare and attributed to tick bites from out of the state, either by traveling people or wildlife. In June 2019, state health officials identified established populations in Douglas, Sarpy, and Saunders Counties. Aside from Lyme disease, other illnesses that are associated with tick bites include Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia, human ehrlichiosis, STARI, Heartland virus, and the red meat allergy. The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services releases a Health Advisory each year outlining Tick-Borne Diseases in Nebraska.

Identification

Ticks have two body parts and eight legs (larvae or “seed ticks” have six) and require a blood meal to develop from larva to nymph, nymph to adult, and then produce eggs. All seed ticks are tiny, so ticks cannot be identified based on size alone. Tick species can be distinguished from one another by the length of the mouthparts and the pattern or markings on the scutum, which is the shield-like area located behind the tick’s head. The male’s scutum covers the entire body, whereas the female has a small scutum to allow her to engorge during blood feeding.

3 species of ticks
Adult ticks (from left to right): Female American dog tick, male American dog tick, female lone star tick, male lone star tick, female black-legged tick, male black-legged tick. Photos: J. Kalisch

American dog ticks are found in areas with little or no tree cover, such as grassy fields, along roads, walkways, and trails. They have short mouthparts and an ornate scutum. Lone star ticks are found in woodland areas with dense undergrowth. The adult female has a single white spot on her scutum, which can be seen even after engorgement. They have long mouthparts and are quite aggressive biters. Black-legged ticks (also called deer ticks) can be found in environments where wildlife, particularly white-tailed deer are present. The nymphs of black-legged ticks are about the size of a poppy seed, but adults can reach 1/8-inch long. Unfed females have an orange-red body with a black scutum, and when engorged have a black scutum and black legs.

For the geographical distribution of tick species in the US visit the CDC website.

Biology & Behavior

Ticks found in Nebraska are three-host ticks, which means they require a different host for each life stage. The entire life cycle may take up to two years to complete. Ticks find their hosts through an action called “questing” or waiting patiently with their front legs extended. They do this at host-height, which is the ground for small rodents and knee height for larger mammals such as deer, dogs and humans. When an unsuspecting host brushes against the claws of a questing tick, the tick hangs on and begins to crawl upward. Contrary to popular belief, ticks do not jump or fall onto hosts from above.

 

Questing
Female American dog tick questing on a blade of grass along a trail. Photo: J. Green

Once a tick has found a host, it cuts the skin with its saw-like mouthparts and drives a rigid feeding apparatus with backwards spines deep into the skin. This securely anchors the tick in place while feeding. Ticks have the ability to feed and remain embedded for several days (7–9) if undisturbed. The longer the tick remains attached, the more likely it can transmit pathogens, if infected. Scientists believe that no infection will occur if a tick is removed within 24 hours. Once the tick is fully engorged, it falls off the host, molts to the next stage of development and either finds a new host or (as an adult female), lays hundreds of eggs.

Engorged female ticks
Engorged female ticks (from left to right): American dog tick with egg mass, American dog tick, lone star tick, black-legged tick. Photos: J. Kalisch & J. Green

Prevent Tick Bites

It is important to prevent and remove ticks before they get a chance to transmit disease. Here are some actions you can take to protect yourself.

Reduce exposure and chances of bringing them home

  • Wear long pants, tucked into white socks for quick tick detection and removal.
  • Put outdoor clothes in the dryer on high heat for 30 minutes to kill any hitchhiking ticks on clothing. Ticks will survive the wash cycle and can easily escape the laundry hamper and seek out a host.

Repellents for skin and treatments for clothing

  • Designate clothing for your outdoor excursions and treat clothing and shoes with a permethrin clothing spray, which can repel ticks for up to six washings.
  • Purchase pre-treated clothing designed to repel insects that can last through 70+ washes.
  • Understand the limitations of DEET repellents against ticks when applied to the skin. Products with higher percentages of DEET will protect for a longer period of time, but anything over 30 percent does not offer greater protection and is unnecessary. (DEET is also a plasticizer, so watch your camera equipment, sunglasses and watches!)
Insect Repellents (23)
EPA approved insect repellents include oil of lemon eucalyptus, IR3535 (not pictured), picaridin, and DEET.

Remember to treat and check your pet

  • Protect your pets by following a tick prevention program as outlined by your veterinarian.
  • If your dog is on a flea and tick program, continue to perform regular tick checks. Ticks are most often found on the dog’s head, in and around the ears, neck, armpits and between the toes. Use pointy tweezers to remove them, collect and discard ticks in a way they cannot escape.

Remove ticks right away and check often

  • Perform regular, full body, tick checks on your person and children, and if possible, shower within two hours of coming in from outdoors. On people, American dog ticks are most often found on the head and around the ears. In addition to these areas, lone star ticks can be found under armpits, around waist, behind knee and in groin area.
  • Remove embedded ticks as soon as possible using pointy tweezers, grasping the tick as close to the skin’s surface and pulling straight out. After removing the tick, disinfect affected skin with rubbing alcohol and keep tick for identification. Also see guidelines outlined by the CDC.
  • Hold on to your tick by place in plastic bag in freezer, so you can have it identified or tested. If adverse reactions occur such as fever or rash, contact your physician.
tweezer tick
Remove embedded tick with pointy tweezers by grasping firmly and pulling straight out. Photo: J. Green

Tick Pictures for Identification

Tick Tag Go is a community-powered effort to establish baseline data on tick distributions in Nebraska. With new tick species being identified in the state, records of tick presence are critical to understanding which species are found where. Find out how you can contribute data on iNaturalist and Facebook.

Tick Testing for a Fee

Jody Green
Extension Urban Entomologist at Nebraska Extension
Jody Green is the extension urban entomologist at Nebraska Extension in Douglas-Sarpy Counties. She specializes in structural, household, and health-related insect pests.
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