gypsy moth

They’re tiny terrors that pack a powerful punch.

Ticks, mosquitoes, and caterpillars have laid siege to Rhode Island, carrying with them real threats of disease and devastation. Eastern Equine Encephalitis, West Nile Virus, Zika and “bull’s eye rash” are now part of our summertime vernacular.

URI’s experts in these areas are in high demand by local and international news outlets. Some experts are bearers of glad tidings. Others, not so much.

First, the good news: gypsy moths, which defoliated 230,000 acres of Rhode Island forest in 2016, have had their moment this spring thanks to May being one of the soggiest months on record. Turns out the rain was great for a fungus, Entomophaga, which attacks and kills the moths, says research associate Heather Faubert, who runs the University’s Plant Protection Clinic and diagnoses plant diseases.

“By the end of June, I really expect almost all of the gypsy moth caterpillars to be dead from fungal disease,” she said. Faubert’s work in recent years has been almost exclusively devoted to assisting farmers in battling moths. At present, she is experimenting with insecticide treatments for trees and advising farmers on dealing with winter moths, which feed on apple trees and blueberry bushes. They accounted for 27,000 defoliated acres in Rhode Island in 2015.

Postscript: The fungus should return gypsy moth levels to normal next year, Faubert noted. Score one for trees. But a wet Spring is not necessarily a good thing for human beings. Mosquitoes like stagnant water, and ticks, humidity.

The problem with mosquitoes

Roger Lebrun, Carnegie Professor of Life Sciences in the Department of Plant Sciences and Entomology, studies long-term management of arthropods that vector (think “transmit”) human and animal disease organisms. That would include the 46 species of mosquitoes present in Rhode Island. He, along with other researchers from URI and the Rhode Island Office of Mosquito Abatement in the Department of Environmental Management are closely watching the spread of the Asian Tiger Mosquito, Aedes albopictus, a carrier of the Zika, Chikungunya, and Dengue viruses. Rhode Island is the farthest north this particular mosquito species has been detected. No known cases of mosquito-borne Zika have been reported in Rhode Island, which, for the time being, considers it a travel-acquired illness. Zika is particularly feared for a link between it and poor pregnancy outcomes for pregnant women who have been infected.

Lebrun does not make predictions about the potential severity of the mosquito situation in the coming months but notes that the biodiversity threat created by the perfect storm of habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution, population density, and over-harvesting of the planet has myriad and long-lasting effects. “Population density and stress cause the expression of viruses,” Lebrun noted. “If we have a wet, hot summer, chances are you’re going to have a lot of mosquitoes.

“We do live in Nature, much as we want to segregate it, and it’s an overwhelming force. And any attempts at denying it are ultimately futile.”

Taking aim at ticks

Tick-borne illnesses prey on the hive mind this time of year. Social media channels run amok with wives’ tales about applying peppermint oil or cotton balls soaked in dish soap to safely dislodge ticks from the skin. (Don’t do either.) The most cursory treatment of tick news reporting invariably ends with the same advice: Wear long sleeves, tuck pant cuffs into socks, and wear pest repellent. Shower within two hours of being outdoors. (Do all of that.)

But avoiding disease spread by ticks shouldn’t be seasonal. Rather, when you live where ticks do, especially blacklegged (deer) ticks, tick-bite protection must be a part of living a healthy lifestyle, said Professor Thomas Mather, of the Department of Plant Sciences and Entomology. Also known as URI’s “TickGuy,” Mather is a nationally recognized expert on public health entomology and vector ecology with emphasis on tick population control and transmission dynamics of tick-borne diseases.

This is Mather’s busy season. In addition to three sponsored research projects (evaluating the efficacy of tick-repellent clothing; a four-year, backyard, integrated tick-management study evaluating control of ticks found at and around 140 households in Rhode Island and Western Connecticut; and experiments leading to development of a broad-spectrum, anti-tick vaccine), Mather and his Ph.D. student Heather Kopsco also manage TickSpotters, the nation’s largest, crowdsourced tick survey. Currently, the team is identifying and responding to more than 100 tick submissions per day, while at the same time fielding interviews from national and regional television networks (ABC, NBC, CW33 and New England Cable News) and national radio, newspapers, and magazines. Also notable: In recent years, the TickEncounter Resource Center’s website has more than a million visitors annually.

In a recent conversation with Men’s Health, Mather explained how tick-bite prevention practices need to be as much a part of healthy living as diet and exercise. “The more we’ve looked into this, the more we think of tick-bite prevention needing to be a lifestyle behavior. It’s not about doing one-off things you can do when or if you think of them but more about making checking for and avoiding ticks a habit,” Mather said. 

“TickGuy” Tips

  • Treat pets monthly with tick-repellent meds that repel and kill loose and wandering ticks, not just those that are already feeding.
  • Wear tick-repellent clothing treated with permethrin when outdoors. Spray permethrin on all outdoor shoes.
  • At least once a day, check below the belt for ticks the size of poppy seeds. These ticks latch onto human beings at the shoe level then crawl up the body until they get caught in underwear or skin folds, which usually happens below the waist.
  • Invest in several pairs of pointy tweezers with tips fine enough to pick up a poppy seed. Keep tweezers in your car and your bathroom. Remove the tick as you would a splinter, getting as close to the head of it as possible. Do not squeeze the tick’s body.
  • Save the tick, or take a picture of it, and have it identified.
  • Follow TickEncounter’s Facebook page for the latest tick news and research.