This has been an especially bad year for ticks. Well, from the tick’s point of view, this would be regarded as an especially good year for ticks, but for humans and dogs it has been a constant nuisance.
As if we did not have enough worries with the COVID-19 pandemic, we also have to avoid being bitten by a deer tick and contracting Lyme disease. This is a serious health threat; over the past 10 or 12 years, both my wife and one of my grandsons have been infected with Lyme disease, and it is a nasty malady.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne (parasite-carried) illness in the United States, transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected deer tick, also known as a blacklegged tick. It is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, and symptoms can include fever, headache, fatigue, and skin rash. In most cases, it can be treated with a few weeks’ course of antibiotics, but the infection can potentially spread to joints, the heart, and the nervous system, causing horrible health problems.
After the fifth or sixth time I came home from a morning walk with my dog Abbey this April and May and discovered a tick or ticks wandering around on my person seeking closer attachment, I designated this the Year of the Tick. Yes, I an aware that the 12 years of the cyclical Chinese Zodiac are represented by the signs of the Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. But I am creating a North Country Zodiac, and it includes the Sign of the Tick. And this is definitely the Tick’s year.
Entomologists (actually arachnologists, since ticks are technically not insects but are arachnids) report there are more than 800 species of ticks in the world but the most prevalent and most troublesome for those of us living in the North Country are the deer tick and the wood tick. In rare cases, a wood tick bite can infect you with Rocky Mountain spotted fever or tularemia, but the bite of a deer tick is the most common vector for Lyme disease.
The deer tick (its scientific name is Ixodes scapularis) is the familiar hard-bodied tick that inhabits the North Country — the upper Midwest. The tick is so-named because it is a common parasite of the whitetail deer, but it is also carried by mice and some migratory birds. The name should probably be “mouse tick,” because the tick does not acquire the Lyme disease microbe from a whitetail deer but only from an infected mouse or other small rodent.
The deer tick has a two-year lifecycle, developing through three stages: larva, nymph, and adult. A deer tick must take a blood meal in the course of each stage of development before it can advance to the next. A female deer tick will attach itself to a host animal for four to five days, feast on the host’s blood, and drop off after she becomes engorged. The tick survives the harshest winters burrowed into leaf litter on the woodland floor, and in the spring lays several hundred to a few thousand eggs.
Then the eggs hatch and – to quote the CDC literature – it is among the “first invertebrates to become active.” Deer ticks can be incredibly numerous. Especially this year.
Although some tick warnings say that deer ticks are frequently in grassy areas, I most often acquire them while walking through our shelter belts of red cedars and shrubs. Seldom does a tick attach to me, but they prefer to roam, searching for secretive places on my person, concealing themselves on my scalp where I have thinning hair, or other parts of my body where I have more.
The sensation of a tick crawling across my skin gives me the screaming-meemies-willies-fidgets-fantods, and I usually detect them long before they bite. This leads to many false alarms, of course, and a gnat that intrudes under my collar or a bead of sweat that courses down my back or my legs can cause me to frantically shed clothing and search my body regardless of the activity in which I am engaged or the company I keep.
I take solace in the assurance of another member of the Over The Hill Gang: “An old coot can drop his pants anywhere as long as he’s wearing funny underwear.” At this stage of life my underwear can almost always be considered “funny.”
But Lyme disease is assuredly unfunny. Be sure to check yourself for ticks after each walk in the wild. Because this is The Year of the Tick.
More essays and stories about life in the North Country are published in my six collections of essays, available through Amazon.com at Jerry Johnson Author Page