Leaving Bugs on the Trail: What You Might Encounter on a Run Through the Woods
Now that warm weather is right around the corner, you may be thinking about hitting the trails. Along with the fun of trail running however come little annoyances that could end up being big trouble down the road.
Primarily dormant in the winter, in spring many insects emerge as adults ready to begin their lives, which could include biting, stinging or at the very least buzzing in the ears of trail runners who may have been relatively dormant in winter themselves.
What is out There?
According to the Smithsonian Institution, there are 900,000 known insects worldwide and an estimated 2 million that have yet to be named. It is estimated that there may be as many as 10 quintillion insects alive at any given time.
In the United States, there are 91,000 species that are categorized into four insect orders: beetles; flies; ants, bees & wasps and moths & butterflies. Experts speculate that there are approximately 73,000 unnamed species in the U.S.
And that is just the insects! Don’t forget about the arachnids, which include not only spiders, but also daddy long-legs, mites, ticks and scorpions. There are more than 100,000 species of arachnids worldwide and about 8,000 species in North America.
Ants, Bees and Wasps
You might think that ants are grouped with bees and wasps mistakenly but all are in the Order Hymenoptera, which means “membranous wings.” Ants do have wings during the mating period. The “queen” ant will lose her wings and venture off to establish a new colony. The male winged drones, whose only purpose is to mate, live for a few mere months before dying.
Ants, bees and wasps are found on every continent except Antarctica and their distribution is based on largely on food source. Bees, for instance, require habitats with flowering plants and trees.
Not all members of the Order Hymenoptera sting but plenty do. Stings cause pain, swelling, redness and itching. In rare cases, severe difficulty breathing and anaphylaxis, which can lead to death, may occur. An ice pack can help with the pain and swelling, as does an over-the-counter oral antihistamine. In cases of severe reaction or anaphylaxis, treatment with an injection of epinephrine is necessary. Between 50 and 100 people die in the United States annually from insect stings, almost always from anaphylaxis and usually within an hour after being stung.
When you think of beetles, the innocuous ladybug or firefly probably spring to mind. Encounters with beetles usually end with no harm done but there are a few beetles that can bite and one—blister beetle—true to its name, cause blisters on the skin when it releases its toxin. Stag and long-horned beetles can bite and although it can be painful, it won’t be fatal. In addition to blister beetles, African bombardier beetles that, despite their name, can be found worldwide also release a toxin that can cause burning and irritation.
Most beetles eat plants—think squash beetle, boll weevil, pine bark beetle—but a few, like ladybugs, prey on smaller insects like aphids which can be beneficial to plants.
There are 350,000 known beetle species worldwide, varying in size from the almost invisible to tropical ones as large as a human hand. 30,000 of those species can be found in the United States.
Part of the order of flies, mosquitoes can drive you crazy just by all of the buzzing, which is the sound of their wings flapping up to 250 times per second.
Buzzing and biting is what mosquitoes do when they aren’t reproducing or eating. To reproduce, they only need stagnant water, which can be found from backyards to woods and everywhere in between. Larval mosquitoes eat organic matter in the water and adult mosquitoes eat nectar from flowers. Female mosquitoes require an intake of blood to produce eggs; sources include people and other mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.
Besides having bites that sting and itch, mosquitoes can carry viruses that can be transmitted to humans such as malaria, the West Nile virus and the Zika virus. Malaria has been around for millennia, dating back to 2700 BC. Although there are drugs to treat it, malaria still kills 1 million people annually. West Nile is a complicated virus with more than 70 strains. It appeared in North America in 1999 and between then and 2014, there were approximately 36,500 cases; 15,800 of them resulted in meningitis/encephalitis and 1,538 of those cases were fatal. On the other hand, Zika virus is often so mild that it is underreported. Symptoms can include fever, rash and joint pain but the real danger is that the virus can cause microcephaly in newborns, a congenital defect of the skull and brain that causes profound neurological conditions that usually result in death. Additionally, Zika has been linked to Guillain-Barre syndrome, an autoimmune condition that damages nerve cells, causing muscles weakness and sometimes paralysis and death.
The bad news here is that all spiders are venomous on some level. The good news is that either the venom is too weak or the spiders’ bite is too weak to puncture human skin and so most spiders are harmless. There are about 40,000 different species of spiders found worldwide, again except for Antarctica.
In North America, there are three spiders that are so poisonous they are considered a threat to humans: the black widow, the brown recluse and the hobo spider.
Of course, all three can be found outdoors, in rocky outcroppings, under bark, leaves, rocks and woodpiles. Brown recluses and hobo spiders usually hide during the day and roam around at night. Brown recluses and black widows tend to bite when they are accidentally provoked whereas hobo spiders can be aggressive and looking for a fight.
Although bites from these three are rarely fatal, they can produce symptoms that could require a visit to a medical professional. Antivenin is available for a black widow bite.
Ticks are parasitic members of the arachnid family and all 900 species of them feed on blood. Among them, there are two different kinds, soft ticks and hard ticks. As you might imagine, soft ticks can become engorged with blood in a matter of minutes whereas hard ticks can take as many as a few days. Almost 70% of the 900 species are hard ticks. About 90 different kinds of ticks are found in North America.
Most ticks find and feed off a different host during each stage of its life—larva, pupa and adult. Some ticks find and feed off the same host for its entire life.
Both the blacklegged or deer tick and the western blacklegged tick are potential carriers of Lyme disease. The Rocky Mountain wood tick can cause paralysis in its hosts, which can include humans, cows, sheep and dogs.
Ticks are more prevalent in humid climates and prefer grassy places through which animal or human hosts may travel. Many times, ticks won’t bite right away but instead will search for a warm spot such as the groin, armpit or scalp. If you are bitten by a tick, try to save the tick so it can be identified. Rashes associated with tick bites can vary depending on the type of bacteria it is carrying. A Lyme disease rash may be in the shape of a bulls-eye pattern and can appear anywhere for 3 to 30 days following a tick bite. The rash associated with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever can vary widely among those bitten. A rash is only one of the signs of a tick-borne illness. Others include fever and/or chills, aches, pain or fatigue. If you think you have contracted an illness from a tick bite, seek the help of a medical professional.
Leaving Bugs Behind
You can still have fun on your trail runs without having to wear a hazmat suit for protection.
Although it is recommended that you wear long sleeves and long pants when in a potentially tick-infested area, that would make for a pretty uncomfortable run in the heat of summer. Permethrin, an insecticide, kills ticks on contact and can be sprayed on clothes and gear but not on the skin. DEET also is effective in repelling ticks and both DEET and permethrin also repel mosquitoes.
It is important to check yourself (and other family members and pets) for ticks after you have been outside, particularly if you have been in grassy areas. If you do find a tick that is embedded in the skin, it is important to try to remove the whole tick by pulling upward with even pressure, grasping close to the skin. This can be done with tweezers or even a special tool—sometimes called a tick nipper—made exclusively for tick removal.
Unfortunately, repellants don’t work on bees, wasps or ants. Single bees and wasps are seldom a threat if you stay calm and move away slowly. Avoid the temptation to squash bees or wasps as doing so near their hives releases a pheromone that attracts other bees or wasps and can bring on an attack. If you happen to step on a nest or disrupt a hive and the bees or wasps start to swarm, run for a dense area and keep on running. Most runners should be able to outrun a swarm of bees or wasps. That will count as speed work!