Tick Blitz: How Community Science is Helping New York State Monitor Ticks
By Carolyn Bernhardt
Roughly 476,000 Americans are diagnosed and treated for Lyme disease each year, alone. But, in the United States, ticks spread at least 16 different diseases to humans. And, for the last six years, the Northeast has reported the most emergency room visits from tick bites out of any region in the country.
“Right now, vector surveillance public health units are really struggling with how to monitor these ticks,” says Laura Harrington, Ph.D., a professor at the Northeast Regional Center for Excellence in Vector-Borne Diseases at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in Ithaca, New York. She says strategies like engaging community scientists can help officials close in on tracking ticks and the diseases they spread.
The Depth and Breadth of Citizen Science
Tick sampling and testing might be sorely needed, but it’s expensive. Harrington leads a community-based science project called the “New York State Tick Blitz,” which she says helped solve some of these cost issues. In 2021, the Tick Blitz’s pilot program set out to engage community volunteers in active tick sampling, educate them on tick-borne diseases, and create a model for relying on community science to help monitor tick distribution.
Ultimately, the Tick Blitz involved 59 volunteers who sampled 164 sites across 15 counties, collecting a total of 3,759 ticks. Nicole Foley, a master’s student in Harrington’s lab at the time, led the volunteers, offering them training and materials to conduct tick sampling during a two-week period in June 2021. The project was Foley’s thesis project and was published in April in the Journal of Medical Entomology.
Foley says a major benefit to the Tick Blitz’s community scientist-based model was the sheer amount of space they could sample. “We were able to cover 15 counties, and that just would not have been able to happen in a week if it was only me and a seasonal staff member,” she says.
Among the tick specimens the volunteers found, most were Asian longhorned ticks (Haemaphysalis longicornis, 54 percent of specimens), followed by American dog ticks (Dermacentor variabilis, 22 percent), blacklegged ticks (Ixodes scapularis, 13 percent), and lone star ticks (Amblyomma americanum, 11 percent). They also found Asian longhorned ticks in one county where the species had not yet been previously identified.
The research team also tested a subset of the collected tick specimens for pathogens. Overall, they found the highest rates of pathogens transmitted by blacklegged ticks, including those that cause Lyme disease (Borrelia burgdorferi), anaplasmosis (Anaplasma phagocytophilum), and babesiosis (Babesia microti).
The researchers pooled their tick samples together for testing to help further save costs. “With community science, you don’t always get the precision you might get with sampling by trained personnel,” says Harrington. “But on balance, hopefully, the signal from the data will hold up with the large sample of collectors we had.”
Some of the tick pools the researchers tested were positive for multiple pathogens, while others were only positive for one or none at all. However, over half of the tick pools tested were positive for the bacteria causing Lyme disease, and smaller percentages were positive for other pathogens. All 13 counties where the team collected ticks showed evidence of B. burgdorferi and B. microti. Nearly all counties had ticks that were positive for A. phagocytophilum, and three tick pools were positive for Powassan virus.
The scientists say that identifying new tick species and finding high rates of infection in the ticks the community scientists collected both highlight the importance of continued tick surveillance efforts and an urgent need for rapid response strategies to mitigate the spread of tick-borne diseases—especially in New York state.
Engaging the Community
“The other big goal was to engage the community, and I think that was extremely successful,” says Harrington. Participants filled out a survey after the experience and reported they would promote it to others. Half said they “enjoyed participating in meaningful science.”
To Harrington, these findings mean “people felt empowered by the knowledge they gained about ticks and personal protection.” They also mean outreach and education programs like Tick Blitz help raise awareness about tick-borne diseases and the role of community members in tick surveillance efforts.
Foley says researchers across the country can replicate the Tick Blitz model to gather prevalence data on ticks and tick-borne pathogens. However, she says the approach works best for finding the presence and absence of ticks. For more specific investigations, like phenology, community science can work, too, “as long as you are training your volunteers on the correct protocol.” She also says repeating the project helps solidify the quality of the data collected: “Doing it once and quitting isn’t ideal.”
This study was the first Tick Blitz the team conducted. They also ran a second cohort in the summer of 2022 and are now fine-tuning their approach for another cycle this summer.
“One of the big limitations that we recognized [in the 2021 cohort] is we didn’t quantifiably capture the knowledge gained by the participants,” says Harrington. “We knew they were learning based on their comments and feedback [via survey], but we didn’t capture quantitative data. If we had done a pre- and post-knowledge assessment, we would have captured that.”
She says they plan to layer this step in for summer 2023 and recommends other groups looking to run a similar study do the same. The team also plans to work with some New York state parks this summer to broaden its reach of participants and help supply the state with tick-related data from key ecosystems.
“I think a lot of people in the general public don’t realize how dire the situation is as far as lack of funding to support tick surveillance is concerned,” says Harrington. “And community science is definitely a tool that can help.”
“New York State Tick Blitz: harnessing community-based science to understand range expansion of ticks”
Journal of Medical Entomology
Carolyn Bernhardt, M.A., is a freelance science writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. Email: email@example.com.
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