Bourbon, Heartland Virus, and Archaeology

Heartland Virus and Bourbon Virus are new health and safety concerns for field archaeologistsTicks are one of the main reasons why I don’t like working in the east or Midwest. I can handle scorpions, brown recluse, and black widows. I get freaked out by diamondbacks, sidewinders, and Mojave rattlers, but the fear subsides relatively quickly and is replaced by heightened awareness. But, ticks. They give me the heebie-jeebies and put me on edge for an entire cultural resource management archaeology field session.

I remember working in Virginia once, about 10 percent of the crew got bitten by ticks and had to be treated for Lyme disease in a single project. The next couple work weeks was horrible—covered from head to toe with their gloves taped to their shirts, sweating in the 95-degree with 99 percent humidity sun. Ticks are a menace to archaeologists wherever those little bastards live.

Once upon a time, archaeologists only had to worry about Lyme Disease or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever-infected ticks. We rushed our comrades to the nearest clinic for antibiotics whenever the trademark bulls-eye rash showed up. The hope was, with quick treatment, we could prevent the disease from spreading and causing lifelong illness.

(Click here to check out the CDC webpage on Lyme Disease if you want to know more)

(Click here to see the CDC webpage on Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever for more information)

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been bitten by a tick and patiently waited for the bulls-eye to show up on my skin. It never happened, but I also can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this unique rash show up on one of my co-workers and taken them to the hospital.

Now, archaeologists have to worry about two new deadly diseases that appear to be spread by tick bites: Heartland Virus and Bourbon Virus.

It’s nothing like sipping bourbon in the heartland

Both viruses are new—as in have only been identified since 2012. They are both believed to be spread through tick bites and have caused fatalities.  They’re also both native to the Midwestern United States. Unlike Lyme Disease, we don’t have much information about these diseases. Doctors are collecting the data, so if you know anyone that might have contracted these illnesses please contact a local health care facility. Here’s what’s known about them so far:

Heartland Virus

Discovered in 2012, eight total cases have been recorded in Tennessee and Missouri. It is believed that the virus is spread through tick and mosquito bites, specifically by the Lone Star Tick. The symptoms appear to be similar to eating a sketchy gas station burrito—loss of appetite, diarrhea, queasy stomach, muscle aches. Most patients have been hospitalized and one died.

People who work outside (ex. archaeologists) and folks with compromised immune systems (ex. archaeologists with a hangover who’ve been eating gas station food for weeks) are most likely to get infected. There is no vaccine or preventative drug.

Bourbon Virus

We’re not talking about a hangover caused by drinking Early Times, Ten High, or Old Granddad. The first case of Bourbon Virus was identified in 2014 and it killed the only person who has ever caught it! The disease is named for Bourbon County, Kansas—the place where the first case was identified. It is so new health officials aren’t even sure if it’s spread by ticks or not.

The first and only victim experienced fever, tiredness, nausea, vomiting, and body aches. Bourbon virus is extremely fast moving. The Kansas man that died was bitten by several ticks while working in his yard. This previously healthy man experienced the aforementioned symptoms and died from multiple organ failure only 10 days later. I’m not sure if he even sought medical attention after getting bitten until he was very sick. I do not know for sure but it is likely that he didn’t go to the doctor after getting bitten. In my experience, few people go to the doctor after getting bitten by a couple ticks while working outdoors unless they see the bulls-eye rash that is indicative of Lyme Disease.

Bourbon Virus is a version of thogotoviruses that are found worldwide. A few of these viruses cause illness in humans. There is no vaccine or treatment for this virus. In fact, there isn’t even a test that can be used to detect it.

Should we freak out?


I don’t like ticks, but I also don’t freak out whenever I get bitten. Avoidance is the best strategy. Go to the CDC tick webpage to learn more about keeping safe in tick country. The CDC website has some useful tips for avoiding tick bites including:

Use insect repellant—I always use DEET because it’s the only thing that actually keeps bugs from biting you. Repel is my favorite but I’ll use Off if I can’t find it. I prefer Repel 40 because I don’t want to get cancer or seizures from using 100% DEET. It’s your choice.

Use insect repellant every day—It seems odd to say this, but, if you want to keep from getting bitten you’re going to need to spray every day. If you’re worried about chemical accumulations, take a bath every day (you can use a bandanna, soap, and water if you don’t have access to a river, pond, or shower).

Wear long sleeves and pants—I got eviscerated for saying in the comments for a podcast that I don’t like tank tops in the field. This is yet another reason why. Ticks can’t bite through clothing. Long pants and shirt limit the surface area that can be bitten, so it’s like an extra layer of bug repellant. Also, you limit the amount of DEET soaking into your body if you spray your clothes. Light colors are best because you can see the ticks on your clothes and get them off you by spraying them with DEET.

I know it can be hot to wear long sleeves in the field. This is work, not a vacation. Be a grown-up. What would you rather have Heartland/Bourbon Virus, Lyme Disease, or be sweaty?

Do frequent tick checks—In tick country, just watch out for your co-workers and have them watch out for you. Do a self-check by running your fingers along your ears, neck, bandanna, and under your armpits to feel for any engorged ticks. Make sure you do a full body check every morning and every night (Sometimes they ride back to your hotel on your clothes and start sucking at night or when you put on your week-old field pants back the next day. Another reason why you should frequently change your clothes)

Learn about ticks—Take a few minutes to learn about the tick life cycle, how they feed, how they reproduce, and their seasonal cycle. Ticks can’t jump like fleas so they hang out on tall grass and low brush. They can also fall off branches. They’re also attracted to the heat of a warm body. Ticks can stay in the same place for months waiting for a host. They’re not very active in temperatures below 45 degrees, but they chill out under branches and brush and will bite given the opportunity.

Knowledge is power. Clear out tall grass from your work areas when you’re in tick country. Spray your backpack and clothing with DEET. Try not to sit and eat lunch in tall grass if at all possible. Learn more so you can take safe action.

Bring these viruses to the attention of your employer—This is really a matter of health and safety in the workplace. We know about Lyme and your company should have a plan for that, but they may not be aware of the newly identified Heartland or Bourbon Viruses. Tell your boss about these new hazards. Don’t let them laugh it off. Companies don’t like workman’s comp or OSHA violation claims, which can happen if they don’t take these matters seriously.

If your supervisors shrug off your warnings, take the initiative to learn more about these viruses yourself and tell your co-workers to be safe. Use bug spray. Wear proper clothing. Do your best to protect yourself.

Ticks have been a human nuisance for as long as we’ve been around. It seems like these new tick-borne viruses are killers that we should be on the lookout for. There is no reason for any archaeologists to die from either virus even though we work in the areas where these diseases are found. Check out the CDC tick website to learn more about how you can stay safe in tick country.

Most importantly, spread the word about these new viruses.

What are your thoughts about the impact of Heartland Virus and Bourbon Virus on cultural resource management archaeology? Do you think you or anybody you know has contracted these illnesses? What can we do to stay safe in the field?

Write a comment below or send me an email.

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