CAPE ELIZABETH — Maggie Welch bent down, clutching a pair of tweezers, and carefully picked up what at first looked like a piece of dirt but was actually a deer tick, the parasite that carries Lyme disease, a growing public health problem in Maine and the Northeast.

“Aha, a male,” said Welch, a research assistant at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute’s “tick lab” in Scarborough. The tick was one of dozens collected last week by Welch in a wooded area off Charles Jordan Road in Cape Elizabeth. The ticks will be used for multiple purposes: long-term research on how ticks survive the winter, testing for diseases, and springtime monitoring of tick activity.

The ticks are out in force this spring after a warm winter, said Charles Lubelczyk, the institute’s field biologist who joined Welch last week on a tick-gathering excursion. They used beige-colored fabric flags, grazing them over the leafy ground. The ticks would attach to the fabric, where they could be more easily plucked off by researchers and placed into vials.

Researchers Charles Lubelczyk, foreground, and Maggie Welch use fabric flags to collect ticks off Charles Jordan Road in Cape Elizabeth.

Researchers Charles Lubelczyk, foreground, and Maggie Welch use fabric flags to collect ticks off Charles Jordan Road in Cape Elizabeth. Quang Ho/Shutterstock.com

The ticks transmit Lyme disease to humans. Maine has experienced a surge of Lyme disease in recent years, although 2015 saw slightly lower numbers of Lyme cases than 2014, after the harsh 2014-15 winter and a relatively dry summer.

Lubelczyk said ticks prefer humid, wet weather over dry, sunny weather.

In 2015, 1,176 people tested positive for Lyme disease, down from 1,399 cases in 2014, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Many more people than that contract Lyme disease but aren’t tested and are not counted in the official numbers.

“The ticks are really moving around this spring, and we’re seeing lots of them, whereas last year they were still dormant in March and early April,” said Lubelczyk, who wore shin-high boots and a long-sleeved shirt.

Maine had only a few hundred cases of Lyme disease in the early to mid-2000s, but cases started increasing in 2007 and for the most part have climbed steadily over the past 10 years, before slightly declining last year.

A deer tick is removed from fabric for later study. Lyme disease cases in Maine began increasing in 2007 and for the most part have risen steadily.

A deer tick is removed from fabric for later study. Lyme disease cases in Maine began increasing in 2007 and for the most part have risen steadily.

But since this past winter was much warmer than 2014-15, more ticks may be active and people are more likely to be exposed to ticks because they will be outside for a longer portion of the year, Lubelczyk said. Also, more deer survived the winter, which will help boost the tick population.

The dozens of ticks collected are used for several research purposes.

“We’re going to mix them up and make a ‘tick puree,’ ” Lubelczyk said. “We can extract DNA from the puree and test for different pathogens.”

The ticks will be tested not only for Lyme, but for the powassan virus, anaplasmosis and other tick-borne diseases.

Also at the Cape Elizabeth site were 24 containers of ticks, each holding three vials with 20 ticks in each vial. The containers, placed there in November, were packed with temperature and humidity gauges. And as part of the study, researchers also measured the depth of ground freezing, which at its peak in mid-February was a foot.

The idea is to study how deer ticks fare in the winter. Snow and leaves act as insulators and help the ticks survive cold weather.

“We need a really long cold spell without any snow on the ground to knock back the tick population,” Lubelczyk said. “We don’t see that very much, especially in southern Maine.”

Half of the containers were cleared of snow after every storm, but not the others. A dozen containers were packed with leaves. Every time researchers checked on the ticks, they would blow into the vials and see how well the ticks moved around.

When the observation period ends in two weeks, they will count how many ticks survived in each container.

So far, it seems the ticks that did worse were those exposed to the weather without the benefit of snow and leaves, Welch said.

The research institute also studies the ever-expanding range of the deer tick – possibly related to climate change – and whether other types of ticks are coming into Maine.

832807_904438 LymeDiseaseInME0416.jpgLubelczyk said he’s watching out for the Lone Star tick, which is making its way up the East Coast but has yet to establish a foothold in Maine.

The Lone Star tick could be a game changer because of its aggressive nature and the fact that it also carries diseases, although not Lyme disease.

“Unlike a deer tick, the Lone Star tick can sense the presence of the host, and they will actively follow you,” Lubelczyk said. “The Lone Star ticks are very hungry and aggressive.”

Meanwhile, Lubelczyk said the range of the deer tick keeps moving north. They are much more common in Aroostook and Washington counties than they were five years ago, he said, when the ticks were establishing themselves on the midcoast.

Moose ticks in a container at Maine Medical Center Research Institute in Scarborough.

Moose ticks in a container at Maine Medical Center Research Institute in Scarborough.

He said researchers also are looking into what types of treatments are best for controlling the tick population. Some measures that can be taken: Clear brush and leaves from property, and reduce the deer population.

Bates College chemistry professor Paula Schlax is attacking Lyme disease from another angle, by studying the genetics around Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that cause Lyme disease. Bates College landed a $345,000 grant in 2015 from the National Institutes of Health to study the bacteria.

“We are working to understand very fundamental biochemical processes that occur in the bacteria that cause Lyme disease,” Schlax said in an email response to the Portland Press Herald. “Our findings suggest that Borrelia burgdorferi may have some unique characteristics in controlling gene expression, and these unique characteristics may help us understand better how the bacteria adapts during the process of being transmitted from ticks to mammals.”

Schlax said the hope is that the research will lead to more treatments for the bacteria.

If Lyme is caught early, the bacteria can be treated with antibiotics, but patients report long-lasting problems when the presence of the bacteria is not discovered in the early stages.

“Untreated Lyme disease can cause severe illness, arthritis and/or neurological problems, in some patients,” Schlax said. “Additionally, some fraction of patients, after testing positive for Lyme disease and being treated with antibiotics, are still ill.”