June 15, 2014 at 1:00 am

Michigan prepares for brutal season of blood-sucking ticks and mosquitoes

Dave Garwood, Warren Department of Public Works employee, puts larvicides into a sewer catch basin. (Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News)

If it feels as though you can’t go out in the yard without getting covered in bug bites, you’re not alone.

Experts say Michigan is in for a brutal season for blood-sucking ticks and mosquitoes, which raises the risk of certain illnesses. Other bugs, such as bees, wasps, mayflies and spiders have returned to Metro Detroit as well.

This past winter’s extreme cold will have little effect on most bug populations in the state this summer, said Howard Russell, a Michigan State University entomologist known as “The Bug Man.”

The heavy snowfall, on the other hand, was beneficial to some creepy crawlers. It served as an insulating blanket for bugs, such as ticks, that live in the leaf litter and at the base of trees. “The snow provided a great barrier against the cold,” he said.

It also left behind lots of water in low-lying areas, which is ideal for mosquitoes to breed, Russell added.

Al Pauli, 62, has seen the bug bonanza on his semi-wooded six acres in Macomb Township. The retired Ford Motor Co. engineer has noticed the growing tick population.

“They’re as bad this year, if not worse, than they’ve ever been,” he said. “And I’ve lived here for 28 years.

Fortunately, Pauli said, he’s only seen American dog ticks around his house. Even so, he and his family are vigilant about inspecting their clothes and their dog after spending any time outdoors, he said.

Michigan has 20 species and they’re usually found in grassy shorelines, wooded areas and fields near woods. The most common ticks in the state are the deer tick, or Black-legged tick, the American dog tick and the Lone Star tick.

Angela Minicuci, a Michigan Department of Community Health spokeswoman, said deer ticks have been steadily increasing in the state. “We are seeing there are more ticks in parts of the state than we’ve seen before,” she said.

The tick population was first found in the western Upper Peninsula. But over the past decade, the bug has spread to places along Lake Michigan’s shoreline in the western part of the Lower Peninsula.

Fighting tick bites

The spread of one species of tick has raised fears of increased cases of Lyme Disease.

The Black-legged or deer tick is the only tick species that transmits the disease, a bacterial infection, through their bites to humans and animals. Symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, and a skin rash at the site of a bite, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Ticks live off animal and human blood, drawn through the skin with a barbed, needle-like structure.

So far this year, 53 human cases of Lyme Disease have been reported, according to the Department of Community Health. Last year, 165 cases were reported, up 60 percent from 2012.

Linda Lobes, president of the Michigan Lyme Disease Association in Wayne, said the group has received about 400 calls from people reporting they’ve been bitten by a tick in the past month. She said that’s about double for a typical year.

“It’s getting interesting this year,” she said.

Russell said the best way to fight tick bites is to perform tick checks after being in wooded areas. Wearing light-colored clothing makes it easier to spot critters that have hitched a ride.

State officials also recommend using insect repellents such as DEET to clothes and exposed skin. They also suggest applying Permethrin to clothes to lower the risk of tick attachment.

Keep mosquitoes at bay

If the ticks don’t get you, mosquitoes likely will. They’re expected to be bad this summer, too.

“They started showing up around Memorial Day weekend and they have just been awful since then,” Russell said. “We’re going to see a lot of them through June and after that, it’ll depend on the summer rains.”

Pauli said the mosquitoes in his backyard are “terrible” because of the moisture left by melted snow. He said he’s seen swarms of mosquitoes around his property this spring.

“If you go around any of the areas where the brush and grass are taller and scare them up, it’s literally like a cloud,” he said. “That’s how bad they are.”

Mosquito repellent is a must when going out to the backyard or the garage, he said.

Mark VandenBerg, president of Farmington Hills-based Great Lakes ACE Hardware, said one of the retail chain’s best-selling products for controlling mosquitoes and deer ticks is Cutter Backyard Bug Control.

“It’s been selling well this month,” he said. “It’s getting to the point where the mosquitoes are starting to come out, it’s getting warmer and people want to spend more time outside.”

The insect repellent comes concentrated in a bottle that attaches to a garden hose and is sprayed over lawns. The insecticide lasts for eight weeks and also kills other bugs such as grubs, ants and beetles.

Expert say using DEET or other EPA-approved repellents when outdoors will help keep mosquito bites to a minimum. Wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants can also help.

The arrival of mosquitoes always raises concerns among health officials about the West Nile virus, which causes inflammation of the brain, or encephalitis.

Adults who are 50 and older have the highest risk of illness from the virus. Last year, the West Nile virus was responsible for 36 illnesses and two fatalities in the state, according to state officials.

Communities battle bugs

Many communities have begun efforts to combat mosquitoes.

“It’s a serious problem and we need to be aggressive fighting it,” Warren Mayor Jim Fouts said. “Now is the time to prevent the larvae and try to stamp out a potentially serious mosquito problem before it happens.”

The city’s Department of Public Works has begun putting larvicides into the 18,000 sewer catch basins of the state’s third largest community.

Building inspectors are also on the lookout for places with standing water where mosquitoes thrive. Property owners who are cited for violations can face fines of up to $1,000.

But ticks and mosquitoes aren’t the only bugs Metro Detroiters may have to contend with this summer. Bees, wasps and spiders are back with the warmer weather as well.

“They’ll all probably be about the same as what you saw last year,” Russell said.

Those living near bodies of water are seeing the season’s first fish flies, also known as mayflies. They aren’t affected by weather like other insects, Russell said, because they’re aquatic and develop in the sediments on lake floors.

“You’ll probably see about the same number of mayflies as last year, too.”

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