Not Just a Tick Talk: A Day in the Field at the 4th Annual Tick Workshop

Lorenza Beati, PhD, gave us instructions as we gathered on a nature trail in Statesboro, GA.

“Don’t believe the sock theory. Ticks can bite through socks, and they can go through the mesh of socks. Use the Deet available. And tape the bottom of your pants. We have duct tape.”

Dr. Beati is a professor of biology at Georgia Southern University (GSU) and curator of the U.S. National Tick Collection (USNTC), the largest curated repository of ticks in the world. I joined her team and a group of researchers and students from around the country for one day of the 4th Annual Tick Workshop at GSU. I visited on a field work day, taking place in the tall grasses along a nature path, and I was instructed to wear long pants, thick socks and boots for protection. Our job was to collect ticks, something people spend most of the summer months trying to avoid. We were handed forceps, vials and white cotton sheets known as “flags,” for catching ticks.

Ticks are disease vectors, second only to mosquitoes in the number of humans they infect globally with disease-causing parasites, bacteria and viruses. In the United States alone, nearly half a million people are diagnosed and treated for a tickborne disease each year.

Dr. Lorenza Beati gives the group instruction on using "flags" to catch ticks.

The group passed around duct tape and bug spray to protect ourselves.

The group used the flags to collect ticks on a dirt path in Statesboro, GA.

CDC Foundation field employee William Hervey served as my personal tour guide for the day. At the start of the path, the group unfurled our “flags” and set to work. Contrary to popular belief, Hervey explained, ticks are not insects but arachnids like spiders and scorpions, which means they have eight legs with which to climb and quest–the official scientific term for a tick’s host-seeking behavior. There are about 90 species of ticks in the United States, and they can be found on any animal, including birds, reptiles and amphibians.

“We’re dragging the flags across the top of vegetation because ticks like to climb to the top of plants and quest,” Hervey said. “They stick out their top two legs and look for something to grab onto.”

The group’s enthusiasm for this work shined through the entire morning. The first tick found on a flag was met with shouts of “You did it!” “They’re actually here!” “Wow, an americanum female!” The group leaned in for a closer look, and I took a big step back.

Throughout the morning, I heard various cries from the group of “I caught a male americanum,” and “I’ve found a maculatum!” Amblyomma americanum is the scientific name for the lone star tick. Amblyomma maculatum is the scientific term for the gulf coast tick. The names matter, because accurately identifying each species allows researchers to attribute the transmission of pathogens each is known to carry, including those that cause spotted fever rickettsiosis and tularemia.

CDC Foundation field employee William Hervey uses a flag to collect questing ticks.

Two members of the group examine a flag for any ticks that have attached.

William Hervey holds up a vial holding a tick he found on his flag.

After the morning’s field work, Dr. Beati gave me a private tour of USNTC, located in the basement of GSU’s natural sciences building. Dr. Beati opened the various cabinet drawers to reveal hundreds of preserved tick specimens in each drawer. USNTC houses over one million specimens from all continents and most of the approximately 860 known species of ticks. The research room also houses a large collection of publications and books, as well as original tick-related photos taken by Dr. Harry Hoogstraal, described by many in the scientific community as “the greatest authority on ticks and tickborne diseases who ever lived.” USNTC is an active research space, and visiting scientists use the collection to explore tick taxonomy, classification, evolution, population genetics and ecology.

Dr. Beati opened one particularly large cabinet to reveal hundreds of different tick species holotypes, the single specimen upon which the description and name of a new species is based. “They are the very first used for a description, and you keep them forever,” Dr. Beati explained. “They are our most precious possessions.” After the tour, Dr. Beati gave me an official USNTC tick coloring book and some temporary tick tattoos for my three-year-old niece.

Dr. Lorenza Beati shows a cabinet full of tick holotypes.

Dr. Lorenza Beati shows a collection of original photos housed in the USNTC.

This jar of ticks is just one of the thousands that fill the USNTC.

Hands-on research like this tick workshop is vital. The experience provided this group of participants with both a fundamental background in ticks and tickborne diseases and the tools to carry the research forward. This work is timely, as changes in land use and climate patterns have led to the expanded geographic ranges of ticks that spread Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, ehrlichiosis and spotted fever rickettsiosis in the US. Internationally, tickborne diseases like Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, which is currently breaking out in Namibia, pose an enormous threat to global health.

The best way to address disease threats like this is to build and maintain strong public health and vector control programs at the local, state and national levels. The CDC Foundation supports this and other tick research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to improve understanding about reported tickborne illnesses, expanding geographic ranges for ticks and risk factors for contracting tickborne diseases.

I will continue to do my small part by giving myself regular tick checks and telling anyone and everyone that ticks are arachnids who quest to bite through socks.

P.S. Learn what to do if you do find a tick on your body.

The Vector Stock and Reagent Repository for Research program referenced in this story has been funded in whole or in part with Federal funds from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services, under Contract No. HHSN272201600013C.

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