Lone star ticks ubiquitous in Aquinnah

Expert says he found larval ticks at every property he checked in town.

Lone star ticks are invading the Island, and are particularly prevalent in Aquinnah. — Courtesy M.V. Commission

Aquinnah is being overrun by lone star ticks, and the town is working to figure out the best way to quell the swelling population.

At an Aquinnah selectmen’s meeting Wednesday, board of health member Sarah Saltonstall said last year she had dozens of tick bites, and ended up bringing 44 ticks into Island tick expert Dick Johnson. 

It was determined that 99 percent of the tick specimens were lone star ticks. 

Johnson said during Wednesday’s meeting that he originally contacted town administrator Jeff Madison to alert him of emails and phone calls he was receiving from concerned townspeople about lone star tick larvae. 

“For some reason, the lone stars are really terrible this year, just totally crazy. We are trying to see if we can get some information out to the public regarding this issue,” Johnson said. 

A complete report of the tick situation in Aquinnah and around the Island is available on town websites. 

Although lone star larvae are unlikely to carry tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and anaplasmosis, Johnson said it is possible for them to cause alpha gal syndrome, which causes extreme red meat and dairy allergies in some cases.

Recently, Johnson said he was in Aquinnah doing yard surveys — where he takes a broom with a towel nailed to it and drags the towel across the yard. Any ticks that are hungry enough will latch onto the towel, and Johnson then records the tick lifecycle stage (larva or nymph) and species.

“I was up in Aquinnah yesterday, and I did five yards. There were a couple places where even I was horrified. I have looked at a lot of ticks over the years, but the number of lone star tick larvae I have seen is astonishing. They are everywhere. Every property I have surveyed in town, we have found lone star ticks,” Johnson said.

He said the issue is widespread across the Island, but is notably bad in Aquinnah.

Part of the issue could be related to climate or weather patterns, but Johnson said he hopes this “isn’t the new normal.”

“No one has really figured out what to do with the darn things,” he said.

According to Johnson, lone star larvae don’t spread out like deer tick larvae do. He said they tend to hatch, and then stay together in a clump. When an object like a towel or the leg of an unsuspecting hiker passes by, Johnson said, the ticks are “painted” onto the object, with hundreds or even thousands of the parasites the size of a piece of pepper.

“They get wiped across like little grains of pepper about the size of a period at the end of a sentence,” Johnson said. “I wear permethrin-treated clothing, and that kills the ticks. That is what people are going to have to do for the time being.”

Selectman Juli Vanderhoop suggested engaging with the fire department to “singe the edges of people’s yards with flamethrowers,” in order to mitigate the spread of ticks and tick-borne diseases. 

“I am completely serious about this. We know the old practice here was to burn, and to keep these lone star ticks somewhat at bay. What happens when they get larger and people start to get bit? This is what scares me,” Vanderhoop said. 

Johnson said he thinks the idea is a good one, and noted a researcher in Georgia is studying the effects of fire on ticks, and how it changes the habitat of the undergrowth that the parasites favor. 

“It’s totally consistent with pre-21st century management of the Island,” Johnson said. 

He noted that the only problem with widespread prescribed burns would be that there are some times of year where burns aren’t permitted by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

Johnson said residents can use permethrin to treat small areas of their property for ticks, and said that if the town doesn’t do something now, he worries that widespread spraying of permethrin could cause ecological damage. “Massive widespread spraying would be a serious ecological disaster,” he said.

In other business, town officials are setting a date for a special town meeting on Saturday, Nov. 14, with a tentative time of 1:30 pm.