Ticks, Bees and Snakes, Oh My!

From Lyme disease to hornets: All you need to know about the natural hazards of hiking and climbing around New Paltz


It’s that time of year when everyone (and -thing) comes out of the woodwork. Winter hibernation is over, and the Mid-Hudson Valley is buzzing. But, before you jump into the open, inviting arms of the woodlands, take a minute to study up on the hazard. No need for alarm—knowing the environment, signs and symptoms can help prevent stings, bites and serious infections. But first, let’s travel to Connecticut.


The insect-borne disease that’s in New York’s limelight

In 1975, in two seemingly innocuous neighboring towns, Lyme and Old Lyme, Connecticut, a series of rheumatoid arthritis cases erupted onto the scene among children—51 cases to be exact.


Lyme and Old Lyme are elbow-to-elbow with the Eastern Connecticut River and about two hours from New Paltz.  They are quaint, captivating and hark back to their British heritage. There are less than 10,000 residents shared between these two towns, giving them a sleepy, unhurried feel—until this unexplainable illness.


For years, researchers were flummoxed until 1981 when a scientist, Dr. Willy Burgdorfer, discovered a bacterium that connected ticks, specifically blacklegged ticks, and the disease that came to be known as Lyme disease. The bacterium, a spirochete, was at the root. In honor of this discovery, it was named Borrelia burgdorferi, which has a nice ring to the ear like a good Italian curred meat, but decidedly not something you would want to eat or contract.

 Photo provided by the Cary Institute

Shown above: A tick under a microscope. (Image provided by Cary Institute of Ecosystems Studies.)

Now, fast-forward to today. One of the fastest growing vector-borne illnesses in the country, Lyme disease was named one of the top ten Nationally Notifiable diseases by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2012 giving it the foreboding air of being part of a most wanted criminal list. Perhaps as elusive to contain, since the disease’s first discovery New York has steadily crept up the charts ranking the highest in total Lyme cases reported by the CDC between the years of 1990 – 2012.


Unfortunately, Lyme can sometimes be hard to identify. Take writer Amy Tan, for example. She slogged through more than two years of unexplainable symptoms—hallucinations, joint pain, numbness and insomnia. This was an unusually bad-case scenario in which she consulted 11 doctors and, according to People magazine, spent over $50,000 on medical bills. Then, as a matter of chance, she read about Lyme disease online and had a moment of cloud-breaking clarity. She returned to the doctor and was later diagnosed with Lyme: a testament to being educated on signs and symptoms.


Typically, a Lyme infection starts with a bull’s eye rash and can include symptoms like fever, headache, fatigue. If untreated, Lyme can spread infection and cause problems with joints, the heart and the nervous system.


Oh the plight of the tiny tick. If only it weren’t for its ability to transmit Lyme disease to victims of their bites, we wouldn’t want to kill the messenger via death by decapitation, asphyxiation or fire. However, according to the CDC, these old standby tricks—like smothering a tick with Vaseline or holding a lit match against its back to encourage it to “unbed” from your skin—are bad beta. Bad, that is, because they encourage the tick to puke back into the wound, possibly, as the CDC puts it, “inoculating the host with a pathogen”—an indisputably unpleasant thing to think about.


Shown above: A female adult tick. (Photo provided by Cary Institute for Ecosystems Studies; photo credit: Kelly Oggenfuss)

Deer and white-footed mice carry these blacklegged ticks, which are most active in the spring, summer and fall with peak season in July and August—just in time to join your summertime celebrations with outdoor barbeques and ice-cold beer. There are often found in thick brush, low to the ground, and can also be carried by pets. Despite the long-held belief, they don’t fall from trees; rather, they hang on the end of leaves and grasp on when you brush past them. They generally crawl in an upward direction and burrow into skin in creases or well-concealed areas like the back of the knee, armpit, etc.


Shown above: Tick, mid-crawl. (Photo provided by the Cary Institute of Ecosystems Studies.)

A few tricks to avoid ticks: First, wear enclosed shoes and clothing of light color that makes it easy to spot ticks. It might be helpful to invest in a pair of low-profile Lymeez Tick Gaiters that act like an amalgam of a sock and a gaiter and are topically treated with repellant. 


Shown above: The sock-like, treated Lymeez Gaiters. (Photo credit:Lymeez LLC)

Second, do scan checks multiple times a day while outside.

Also, consider using bug repellants. Here at Rock and Snow, we have a variety of repellants like, for example, DEET-free Natrapel products. Natrapel Wipes are an especially mild solution for children. Our stronger varieties have DEET.  The CDC recommends Ben’s 30 to protect against disease-carrying insects. It contains 30 percent DEET and is best applied to the skin. The high-concentration Ben’s 100 contains 95 percent DEET.


A note of caution: products with DEET are strong and keep bugs away, but have a catch-22. While DEET can be protective, the harsh ingredients can degrade gear—like sleeping bags—over time. Just having DEET on and around your neck/face and lying down for a snooze will be enough DEET-to-material contact to slowly damage your gear. Avoid this by washing off before bed, or consider getting a sleeping bag liner. An alternative: Ben’s Clothing and Gear spray contains Permethrin rather than DEET and can be safely applied to your gear. Some companies also make clothing that has bug-repellant technology built into the fabric, like the Outdoor Research Men’s Wayward Sentinel Shirt™ which has Insect Shield®.


Last, take a shower when you get home. Then, make a full body check after the shower.


If you find a tick, those little suckers are most easily extracted immediately. Using a pair of tweezers, like the Tick Remover or the plier-like Tick Nipper™, grab the tick as close to your skin as possible and gently pull. Don’t attempt to rip the tick’s head off; you don’t want to decapitate him leaving the head embedded. Rather you want to gently dislodge the tick, with head intact, and then asphyxiate him in a jar of alcohol. Next, monitor the bite. If you see a rash or have other symptoms, seek medical attention. If you find a tick within hours (up to two days) after attaching, they likely will not have been attached long enough to pass on Lyme disease. Regardless, if caught early, Lyme disease is treatable.


There are more in the woods than just ticks.

While ticks and Lyme disease in recent years have been in the limelight, they’re not the only hazards when you’re hiking or climbing in the area. Not that long ago, other critters took top priority: bees, bald-faced hornets, yellow jackets, wasps, snakes. Not just hikers blazing through the woods need be on the lookout, climbers will also encounter these hazards on rock faces.


Yellow jackets are small, but they pack a punch. There are different species and some will nest in the ground while others will build exposed aerial nests, like the ones you find on high on the rock faces. If you upset them, they can defend themselves in large numbers. Bald-faced hornets are a fatter, more aggressive and territorial version. They can sting repeatedly and also build exposed, aerial nests. You can often distinguish between species based on nests: hornets build a closed nest, while yellow jackets build a honeycomb-like nest.  Avoid these nests at all costs.


“I’ve seen some hornet nests on the cliffs the size of footballs,” says Rock and Snow owner, Rich Gottlieb, “as well as nests the size of golf balls with a small tubular entrance.”


Gottlieb’s best advice is: don’t panic if you see nests. Give these nests a wide berth and  climb up or down to avoid contact.


Then there are snakes. They especially love the warm days of spring and summer, and will often nest in and around the rocks. Especially in the Mohonk Preserve, you will only see Garter Snakes, distinguishable by the dark brownish coloring with yellow racing stripes. Less frequently you will see Northern Copperheads.


While Garter Snakes are mostly harmless, Northern Copperheads are poisonous—and especially sneaky with their aptly named copper-colored head and leaf-colored banded camo body allowing them to blend into the ground, incognito. Shy, they often freeze when approached rather than slithering away resulting in a bite for the unbeknownst passer-by.  Because of this, Copperheads have bitten more people in the United States than any other venomous snake. If this happens to you, seek immediate medical attention.


There’s a lot to know about what lurks in the woods, so if you have questions, consult the staff at Rock and Snow. We can help educate and suggest items, like repellants or first aid kits to help protect yourself again things like Lyme disease or wasp bites.