Tickbait – how mobile phones could explain tick bites

PAP/Maciej Kulczyński

With the tick season underway, the pests are out and about, jumping aboard human hosts and sucking up their blood.

But what turns some bodies into a tick magnet, and others not? The surprising answer, according to new Polish-Slovak research, could lie in your mobile phone.

The electromagnetic field frequency mobile phones emit may actually work to attract ticks, the research suggests.

In an article published in the Experimental and Applied Acarology journal, scientists from Poland and Slovakia have published findings into the connection between electromagnetic radiation and tick distribution and discovered an unusual correlation.

“We found that ticks preferred the electromagnetic field with a frequency of 900 MHz - exactly the one used in mobile phones,” says Dr. Viktoria Majlathova from the Institute of Parasitology of the Slovak Academy of Sciences. “Cell towers, on the other hand, created an electromagnetic field at a frequency that deterred ticks.”

The experiment carried out in the laboratory on over eight hundred meadow ticks was based on an especially constructed device used to check the response of ticks to the presence of an electromagnetic field.

"It’s a kind of a simple maze - a two-armed polypropylene tube with one arm transparent and the other covered with copper. When the labyrinth was placed in the electromagnetic field, the transparent arm was exposed to radiation, and the one covered with copper was shielded,"  explains Dr. V Majlathova.

The authors of the study checked in to see which part of the tube each tick had ended up in. At 900 MHz, ticks clearly preferred the plastic arm, the area subjected to radiation. The ticks which were exposed to radiation at 5000 MHz, however, would move away from it and hide in the shielded part of the tube.

Organisms like to use various signals emitted by animals and people, which provide them with information about the proximity of a potential victim. Testing their sensitivity to electromagnetic radiation is a significant step towards understanding their behaviour.

"They react to carbon dioxide in our breath, temperature and other chemical stimuli from the hosts to close their life cycle. The effectiveness of finding a host to drink blood is a question of life and death for a tick. Electromagnetic field can be used as a source of information about an approaching host, because living organisms also generate this type of field," she said.

Whether the findings could be applied to dealing with the distributions of ticks remains unknown. Dr. Majlathova notes that the conclusions from the experiment did not definitely say whether using a mobile phone could attract ticks: "This will have to be checked."

The findings could prove to be crucial, though, with much of Europe and the US in the grips of a Lyme Disease epidemic. Ticks that carry the borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, which can lead to encephalitis and chronic suffering amongst those infected, are increasingly found in areas previously uninhabited.

Climate change and warmer climes in the north of Europe and the US are thought to be to blame.