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Granite Geek: Experimenting With Tick Tubes

Photo courtesy of USDA Agricultural Research Service.

In the fight to prevent the spread of Lyme disease, you have a few options to keep that ticks away. You can wear long pants and tuck them into your boots. You can check yourself thoroughly after you come in from the outdoors. And you can do as Granite Geek David Brooks has done: hide so-called “tick tubes” in your yard like so many Easter eggs. All Things Considered host Peter Biello spoke with Brooks, a reporter for the Concord Monitor, about how tick tubes work.

(This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)

So what are these tick tubes?

They are tubes, oddly enough, that are filled with cotton or a cotton-like substance. In my case I used dryer lint that had been soaked in an insecticide, permethrin is the usual choice. And you stick the cotton in these tubes and you hide them around your property or wherever you want to reduce the tick population. And you hope that mice, specifically white-footed mice, which are one of the major carriers of ticks in New Hampshire, see the cotton and say, hey, this would make terrific nest material. And they take it back to their nest and they snuggle up in it. And the permethrin in the cotton will kill the ticks that they are carrying and therefore make it less likely that they will drop ticks around your property so the ticks can grab you as you walk past.

Overall, it's a hopeful endeavor.

Yeah, the research I've seen, it hasn't been super quantified but it's, you shouldn't count on it. Absolutely, definitely, you should not count on getting rid of all the ticks on your property so you can walk around barefoot.

You should still do all the other things?

I still do all the other things. If nothing else it makes me feel better. You know I need to do something to those little so-and-sos.

Is permethrin poisonous to humans and other animals?

Actually it’s dangerous for cats. I have pants, for example, that are impregnated with permethrin and if I had a cat in the house at the moment I would not let the cat sit on my lap. And I can't assume it's really great for other things. You know when we did our spraying we wore gloves. But it's sold in your local hardware store. So it not wildly toxic but, you know, it's an insecticide. I can't imagine it's good for you. 

Because my thought on that is, what if some other animal gets in contact with these tick tubes, maybe a bird uses some of the cotton and uses it to build a nest or maybe you have children and the children are running around in the yard and say “Hey, what's this thing?” and they start pulling out the cotton?

Well, your children should not eat cotton they find in the wild, I suppose. And I’m not sure birds would be much of an issue. Actually, I had several readers today after my column came out email me or express concern online about the effect of predators that might eat the mice. If a mouse has been you know nestling up with its permethrin, might that affect the predators. And the answer is yeah it might.  I don't know that there's been any research, partly because you'd have to quantify how much of the permethrin gets onto the mouse, how much of it stays on the mouse and that sort of thing, which is you know would be nontrivial to do. Nobody's actually done it. But it's an insecticide.

My way of looking at it is, it's a very specific, focused way to get the insecticide out toward the target as compared to like spraying it on the edge of your property which is sort of another thing you do. It ain't perfect but I would think the side effects would be fairly limited.

You also reported this week that Kaitlyn Morse, a biology lecturer at Plymouth State University, is attempting to use crowdsourcing to sort of get a better idea of where the ticks are in New Hampshire. We know they're down south, not so sure about the northern part of the state.

Well, there are certainly ticks up there. She's trying to do a better job of quantifying up closer to the notches, and even north of the notches eventually, about what’d the tick population up there and what percentage of the ticks are carrying the Lyme and other diseases. I mean down here they've been studied enough that down here, like you know Hillsborough, Merrimack County, they've been studied enough that you can say pretty much any deer tick you see in the wild is carrying a disease. It's not entirely clear further north.

So she's got a project going through something calls BeBop Labs, which is the name of her dog, and it's sort of associated with the work she's doing a Plymouth State, to get people, if you get a tick, to send it to her with a date and time and location and she can use it to quantify what's happening, maybe even create a map, maybe even create a risk map over time. So it's an interesting project.

I think it's more about education in the sense of getting people up north to take the tick problem and the Lyme problem more seriously, as seriously as we do down south. Because I think there's a feeling, once again kind of north of the Lakes Region, in the North Country, moose ticks are a problem but the deer ticks aren't so much. So that's part of it, she's trying to do education and let people know, find out how concerned people are up there as well so she can know whether you need to ramp up their concern or not.

When might we know information that's usable from BeBop Labs?

She's just getting started so I'm not sure. Certainly not likely to happen this year, but maybe next year there'll be a sign saying this particular park is loaded, be careful with ticks, and this park is not or something up on Plymouth. Something along those lines.

That's David Brooks, reporter for The Concord Monitor and the writer who has never had a problem to which he could not apply a geeky solution at GraniteGeek.org.

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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