The black-legged tick that causes the debilitating disease is more common in Manitoba than Saskatchewan and Alberta
Ian Steppler does a lot of laundry in the summer months.
He runs a beekeeping operation near Miami, Man., and every day he washes the bee suits worn by his employees.
He does it because he’s worried about ticks and the chance that one of his employees will get Lyme disease.
“I don’t know if that helps or not,” said Steppler.
“(But) you get a good look at it (the bee suit) and see if there are any ticks crawling around.”
Like many beekeepers in Manitoba, Steppler worries constantly about Lyme disease. His farm is in Manitoba’s Pembina Valley, one of several hot spots in the province for blacklegged, or deer, ticks, which transmit the disease to humans.
Lyme disease is an inflammatory infection that can cause symptoms ranging from flu-like to severely neurological, including paralysis.
The number of cases of Lyme disease has spiked in Canada over the last decade, jumping to 992 confirmed and probable cases in 2016 from 144 in 2009, according to Health Canada.
Nearly 90 percent of the cases were in Ontario, Nova Scotia and Quebec, where the population of deer ticks is well established.
Manitoba had 64 cases in 2016, up significantly from 11 in 2009.
Health Canada says Saskatchewan and Alberta do not have risk areas for Lyme disease.
Ninety-seven percent of the ticks in Saskatchewan are the American dog tick, which doesn’t transmit the disease.
“Of the 26,666 ticks collected and identified in Saskatchewan since 2008, only 65 were black-legged ticks,” said a Saskatchewan government website.
“Among these 65, only eight black-legged ticks tested positive for the bacterium that causes Lyme disease.”
The story is similar in Alberta. The provincial government says the likelihood of being bitten by a blacklegged tick is low.
“The risk of being bitten by a blacklegged tick infected with B. burgdorferi, the bacteria that can cause Lyme disease in humans, is even lower,” an Alberta government website says.
Residents of Alberta and Saskatchewan are less likely to get Lyme disease than other Canadians, but that could change. A St. Francis Xavier University study concluded the risk of Lyme disease could soon increase in all parts of southern Canada.
Many Manitoba beekeepers and people who spend time in the bush are already at risk for Lyme disease.
That’s because their bee colonies are often kept in areas with scrub bush and long grass, which are prime areas for deer ticks.
“(The) occupation of beekeeping and Lyme disease, I think there is a connection. It’s because of where they keep bees. It’s a prime tick area,” said Rheal Lafreniere, provincial apiarist with Manitoba Agriculture.
“There are enough cases that the linkage is more than happenstance.”
Steppler knows of several Manitoba beekeepers who have contracted Lyme disease. He’s seen what it has done to others and it’s scary.
“Their health deteriorated to where they couldn’t function,” he said.
“If I got sick because of a deer tick and Lyme disease … who is going to run my business? I would pretty much have to sell.”
Steppler is at risk but he worries more about his employees. He often hires local students to work on his apiary in the summer.
“We’re taking the kids from the community and we’re taking them out to these high risk areas,” he said.
“I think about it every day, actually.”
Most beekeepers encourage their employees to check their bodies carefully after work for ticks and signs of tick bites, such as swelling or a rash.
However, it’s not easy to spot a deer tick because they are tiny.
“Most humans are infected through the bite of immature ticks that are approximately the size of a poppy seed, called nymphs,” Steppler said.
“Adult ticks, approximately the size of a sesame seed, can also spread Lyme disease. Ticks are very small and their bites are usually painless, so you may not know that you have been bitten.”
Because it’s difficult to detect deer ticks, beekeepers spend much of their energy on preventing tick bites.
Steppler and other Manitoba beekeepers are constantly cutting the long grass around bee yards. Some beekeepers take it a step farther by burning the long grass to keep deer ticks at bay.
Another option is repellent. Permethrin, an insecticide, can be applied to boots and clothing to prevent tick bites.
Health Canada also recommends tucking a shirt into pants and pulling socks up over the pant leg.
As for Steppler’s method of washing bee suits, Health Canada information suggests a dryer might be better.
It recommends putting clothes in a dryer on high heat for 10 minutes to kill ticks. If the clothes are washed they should be washed in hot water.
There are government websites and information online about deer ticks and Lyme disease, but health authorities should be doing more, Steppler said.
“A lot of it is the unknown. We (beekeepers) are not sure what to do about it,” he said.
“I wish the government would have a little more attention to this issue…. Maybe a little more money put towards research.”