New Brunswick

The tick collectors: Volunteers dragging for bugs most of us try to avoid

Most of us take pains to avoid picking up ticks when we're outdoors. But one group in the Miramichi region is actively seeking them out, with the help of a trained expert.

Black-legged tick populations are on the rise and communities need to know where they are, researcher says

Black-legged tick populations are on the rise in the Maritimes, Mount Allison University biology professor Vett Lloyd says. (Jean-Christophe Verhaegen/Getty Images)

Most of us take pains to avoid picking up ticks when we're outdoors.

But one group in the Miramichi region is actively seeking them out, with the help of a trained expert.

Volunteers from the Miramichi River Environmental Assessment committee are collecting ticks along the Miramichi River this fall, bottling their catch and bringing it back to be tallied by Mount Allison University biology professor Vett Lloyd.

Lloyd has tracked and studied ticks and Lyme disease — the debilitating disease they can transmit — for more than a decade. Lloyd told Shift NB the tick population has been steadily increasing in the Maritimes and is also on the move, with black-legged ticks appearing further north than in the past.

It's vital for communities to know where those increases are happening and whether they are at risk of infection, Lloyd said.

"And there's no better way to have people in a community get that information than to have them out there dragging the park for ticks."

Dragging for ticks typically involves pulling a white cloth over vegetation to collect ticks that may be lurking there. The dark brown ticks show up against the light cloth. (File photo submitted by Emily Chenery)

Ticks tested for bacteria that cause Lyme disease

Earlier this fall, Lloyd teamed up with the Miramichi environmental group volunteers, and they've been dragging the Miramichi River region for several months now. 

The collection process entails an obvious element of protection from the pest the volunteers are collecting: they're carefully clothed in protective gear and wear boots. They then drag a piece of white cloth over grass, shrubs and other vegetation in the river basin, looking for "ticks that are stupid enough or desperate enough to think that cloth is an animal," Lloyd said.

The ticks, which are dark brown, grab onto the cloth and are easily spotted against it.

The haul is then collected off the drag sheets, labelled by location and date found, sorted to remove anything that is not a tick, put in sample bottles and taken back to the lab.

"And then those ticks are tested to see if they're carrying the bacteria that causes Lyme disease," Lloyd said.

Lloyd, seen in a file photo, has studied tick populations for almost a decade. (The Daily Climate)

Ticks still active well into December

Although temperatures are dropping, the collection will continue at least until mid-December.

"Once the snow is heavy enough on ground that the ticks are buried, volunteers will stop," Lloyd said. "But ticks are still out now and wandering around."

Even though it feels cold, it's not necessarily staying cold for long enough to kill them off, "so we're getting more and more of them every year."

Tick populations are increasing along the coast because the ocean moderates the temperature. But researchers are also seeing tick populations increasing along river valleys.

For this reason, Lloyd wanted to collect along the "really big rivers in the province, and the Miramichi is one of them," to see if ticks are establishing along them.

Lloyd is cautious not to over-alarm. Not every tick is infected with the bacteria that cause Lyme disease, she said, and even if a tick is, "it has to feed for a while" to transmit the infection.

"It's not like you should lock yourself up and never go outside," she said. "We have to go outside — it's nice out there. But we do need to keep an eye on where the tick populations are and what the infection rate is, so that communities can get good information."

Lloyd said the collected ticks will be tested over the winter months, and the results will be reported in the spring of 2021.

With files from Shift NB

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