Category Archives: Medical Entomology

Under the Microscope: Arthropod Trends of 2017

Over 2,500 cases flowed through the doors of the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab last year, ranging from the typical June beetles through bizarre creatures that most humans will never see in their entire lives (like the itch-inducing pyemotes grain mite).  Perhaps Forrest Gump said it best when he quipped, “life was like a box of chocolates—you never know what you’re gonna get.”  A distinction amongst insects, however, is that the “box” contains 20,000+ possibilities in Wisconsin alone and over well 1,000,000 globally.  With that said, a year at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab is like having one humongous, box of really awesome chocolates, without all the calories.

Finding a pyemotes itch mite is like trying to find a needle in a haystack, except in this case these microscopic mites were in a farmer’s batch of corn. Photo credit: PJ Liesch, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab

With insects and related creatures, the weather can of course have a big impact and there definitely were examples of this in 2017.  The current cold winter aside, the last two winters had been otherwise mild, giving a few insects suited for warmer conditions a chance to inch their way northward.  Last spring and summer, this meant a bunch of sightings of an otherwise uncommon bee for our area known as the carpenter bee due to its habit of tunneling into unpainted cedar trim and other wood.  In a typical year, I might see a few cases out of the southeastern corner of Wisconsin, but 2017 had regular reports of these bumble bee look-alikes during the spring and summer months.  Similarly, praying mantids often meet their maker at the hands of a cold winter, but were surprisingly abundant in late summer and fall of last year.  Ticks were also extremely abundant last spring and with the rainy start to the summer, mosquito numbers were at an all-time high in some traps.  Mosquitoes were also a big deal in the news, with Wisconsin’s first confirmed reports of the Asian Tiger Mosquito last July.

Asian Tiger Mosquito (Aedes albopictus). Photo credit: James Gathany, Centers for Disease Control

The creature that amassed the most phone calls and emails in 2017 was the notorious Japanese beetle, which likely also benefited from the warmer than average winters these past few years.  For Wisconsin gardeners and farmers, the Japanese beetle is certainly a formidable foe, but at least there are ways to mitigate the damage.  In contrast, there’s another destructive pest wiggling its way into the spotlight in the state, which is much more difficult to control—an invasive earthworm commonly known as the jumping worm.  While they may not be insects, these earthworms are creepy-crawly and can wreak havoc in  gardens and flower beds, so I received a fair number of reports and questions.  What stood out to me in last year was the rapidity with which these destructive worms have been moved around the state (moved—as in humans have moved soil, plants, mulch, and similar materials).  Jumping worms were first found in the state in 2013 (in Madison), but have now been spotted in roughly half of the counties in Wisconsin.  To make matters worse, we don’t have any highly effective tactics to prevent these worms from turning rich garden soil into the consistency of dry, crusted coffee grounds—gardeners beware!

Speaking of invasive species, the emerald ash borer has continued its march through the state and now has footholds in some of our northern counties including Chippewa, Douglas, Eau Claire, Marathon, Marinette, Oneida, and Sawyer counties.  Unfortunately, our greatest concentrations of ash trees are in the northern part of the state (e.g. black ash in swampy areas), and the loss of ash from northern wetland areas could result in significant ecosystem effects.  Other recent invaders like the spotted wing drosophila and the brown marmorated stink bug had busy years as well.

Rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) visiting a flower in Middleton, WI. Photo credit: Rick Terrien

In other insect news, it seemed to be a good year for monarch butterflies in 2017, and the rusty-patched bumble bee finally made it onto the federal endangered species list. I was pleasantly surprised by a number of confirmed sightings of the rusty-patched bumble bee in the state as well. Perhaps my favorite “bug” story for the year involved black widow spiders.  It’s not common knowledge, but we do technically have a native black widow species in the state (Northern Black Widow, Latrodectus variolus).  It’s a reclusive species and is rarely encountered in Wisconsin, but reports trickled in once or twice a week at some points during the summer months (details to follow in a future blog post).

With so many cases last year, we’re really only touching the tips of the antennae.  If you’re interested in hearing more of the unusual stories from the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab, I’ll be giving a “highlight” talk on May 4th on the UW campus.

 

 

 

A Mysterious Tingling Sensation: Bird Mites

If I had to pick the most misunderstood creature I regularly encounter at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab, it’d be bird mites.  Perhaps you’ve never even heard of bird mites before—tiny arachnids that suck the blood of the birds nesting in your back yard.  Under the right conditions, those same mites can wander indoors and be a temporary nuisance to humans.

If you haven’t heard of bird mites before, your first inclination may be to do a quick Google search to learn more.  Unfortunately, the Internet is rife with misinformation about these creatures.  In the age of fake news, here’s another gentle reminder to assess the credibility of online sources.  I’ve encountered “official sounding” websites full of misleading, downright wrong, and in some cases, dangerous management recommendations about bird mites.  I’ve also had to console clients on multiple occasions because they’ve read about bird mites online—only to believe that the mites will be infesting themselves, their homes, and vehicles indefinitely.

Although small (<1 mm long), bird mites can be seen with the naked eye, and their nearly constant movement helps give them away.  Perhaps the best description of their appearance is walking flakes of pepper.  Under magnification, bird mites have a somewhat tick-like appearance with their eight legs and long, prominent mouthparts.  The mites are often whitish in color with some black on the body but can turn darker after feeding.   Each year, I typically bump into 10-20 bird mite cases during the spring and summer months.  The mites can actually be quite common but simply aren’t encountered unless you have a bird nest very close at hand: under a back deck, on a patio light fixture, in a gutter or a damaged soffit area or in a shrub just outside a bedroom window.

Bird mite. Photo Credit: Whitney Cranshaw, Bugwood.org

True to their name, bird mites are parasites that feed on the blood of birds.  These mites are often most noticeable when young birds have just left the nest and the mites wander desperately looking for a blood meal.  Without their avian host, bird mites have a short time to live, but they can make their way indoors where they can crawl on and inadvertently try biting humans and pets.  Although the mites can be an itchy tingly nuisance, bird mites cannot survive on humans or in homes for any significant length of time.  The literature suggests that off of their avian hosts, the common bird mites may be able to survive a matter of weeks under the most ideal of conditions.  In most cases, the conditions off the birds are so hostile (too dry) that survival is limited to a few days at best—especially in a modern home with air conditioning.

As with many pest control situations, eliminating the source of the problem often brings about rapid results and bird mites aren’t any different.  If you’ve found bird mites, removal of the bird nest once the birds have left the nest is the single most important step.  Like flipping a switch, mite activity typically drops off rapidly within a day or two of the nest being removed.  Indoors, dry conditions pose the biggest threat to bird mites, so running your AC and/or dehumidifier may help hasten their demise.  Vacuuming, using sticky tape, or wiping up mites with a damp soapy cloth can all help eliminate any additional stragglers that made it indoors.  Pest control professionals typically also apply to residual product to nearby areas to help control any residual mites.

If you think you may be dealing with bird mites, contact the local University Extension service in your state/country for advice.

Don’t Be an (April) Fool: Look Out For Ticks

April Fools’ Day may be here, but the topic of ticks is anything but funny.  The Midwest is home to over a dozen tick species, although only a few of these are encountered regularly by people and/or pets and are of notable concern.  Nevertheless, the medical concerns posed by some species can be quite significant.  Our two most notorious species of ticks in Wisconsin and nearby states are the wood tick (aka American Dog tick) and the deer tick (aka black-legged tick).

The wood tick (Dermacentor variabilis) is perhaps our most commonly encountered tick and adults of this species are fairly noticeable with their relatively large size (~ 1/4  inch long).  Wood ticks can be associated with certain human diseases, such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever although the threat of this disease in the Midwest is low.  A complication regularly caused by this tick in the field of veterinary medicine is tick paralysis, which is a serious reaction to components of the tick’s saliva in situations where ticks have been attached to pets for extended periods of time.

Adult Female Wood Tick (American Dog Tick). Image source: CDC.

At the moment, the tick of greatest concern in the Midwest is the deer tick (Ixodes scapularis).  This is the species notoriously associated with Lyme disease, although it can also vector anaplasmosis, babesiosis, and other diseases.  This tick is noticeably smaller than wood ticks, making them more difficult to spot; adult deer ticks come in at a mere ~ 1/8 inch long.  Interestingly, deer ticks are relatively new to the upper Midwest and these ticks weren’t spotted in Wisconsin until the late 1960’s .  Fast forward 50 years and deer ticks can be found in nearly every corner of the state.  The high rate of infectivity (i.e., percentage of ticks carrying a disease) is worryingly high: approximately 20% of tick nymphs (juveniles) and 40% of adult ticks in Wisconsin are carrying the microorganism responsible for Lyme disease.  In certain spots in the state, the rate of infectivity has been documented at closer to 60% in some studies.  This high rate of infectivity combined with the recent ubiquity of deer ticks poses significant health risks to residents of the upper Midwest and nearly 30,000 confirmed Lyme disease cases are reported from across the country to the CDC each year.  What’s more alarming is that estimates from the CDC suggest that the actual number of Lyme disease cases may be an order of magnitude higher!

Adult Female Deer Tick (Blacklegged Tick). Image source: CDC.

So how will ticks and Lyme disease be in Wisconsin this year? Some scientists have predicted high tick and Lyme disease pressure in the eastern US in 2017.  While that topic has gotten a lot of attention in the news, this may not be the case in our state.  The thought behind the prediction is that high rodent populations (a host for juvenile deer ticks) may bolster deer tick numbers.  While this relationship was documented in certain geographic locations in a 2005 study, the relationship didn’t hold up across the board as a general predictor of tick activity and neither did weather patterns.  With that said, it’s difficult to get a reliable predictor of tick activity and Lyme disease pressure in a given year.  In addition, based on recent field observations by fellow entomologists, rodent populations don’t seem to be bursting at the seams at the moment in Wisconsin. Last year (2016) seemed to be an average tick year in the state and we may be in for more of the same this year.

Regardless of tick numbers, the threat of ticks and Lyme disease is still out there and isn’t something to be ignored.  Deer ticks can potentially be encountered anytime of the year that the temperatures are above freezing and the ground isn’t covered with snow.  While often thought of as a creature of the deep woods, ticks can also be found in suburban areas near parks and nature preserves, so vigilance is a must—even in your own backyard.  Below are some sound tips to help prevent issues with ticks this year:

  • Personal Protection: Long sleeved clothes can help prevent ticks from getting to skin. In addition, light-colored clothing can make it easier to spot ticks.
  • Repellents: A number of EPA approved repellents (such as DEET) can help repel ticks when properly used. Always consult the product label for important usage instructions (e.g., application to skin vs clothing, how often to reapply).  As another consideration, clothing can be treated with certain permethrin products (often sold at outdoor/camping stores) to provide long-term protection from ticks. Outdoor clothing impregnated with permethrin can also be purchased at outdoor clothing stores and can remain effective for extended periods of time.
  • Tick checks: To effectively transmit Lyme disease, deer ticks have to be attached and feeding for approximately 36 – 48 hours which means that daily tick checks can help find and remove ticks before they’ve had a chance to transmit Lyme disease. Tick checks can be an important precaution for both people and pets.
  • Protecting Pets: Family pets should be treated with a preventative flea and tick treatment. Consult with your veterinarian about the products recommended for your particular pet(s).  Lyme vaccines for animals are also available through your veterinarian.

Perhaps Mother Nature has a cruel sense of humor with her April Fools’ pranks—we finally have an end to the dreary days of winter only to move into tick season!