Vampires of Summer

Each and every year I wonder…is there anything good about a tick? I’ve thought and thought, and failed, each year, to find something good to say about a tick. They’re awful. They suck blood and spread disease. And there are few things more revolting than their swollen bodies once they’ve fed.

Shudder!!!! The merest thought and my skin crawls.

Maybe they pollinate something. Wasps do, maybe ticks, too? That would be good. Maybe they burrow about in the soil before turning into blood sucking vampires, improving soils and helping worms and such not? Or maybe not… they can’t, really can’t, be all bad, right?

This year I decided to double down on tick research. I decided to read the entomologists, who, loving to study insects as they do, would know all sorts of stuff about ticks and I was sure they’d enlighten me so that for the rest of time I would know that these creepy creatures really are one of nature’s good guys. There must, truly must, be something good to say about these unloved creatures.

This is what I found. Ticks aren’t insects. They’re part of the arachnid (spider) family. I feel an attack of arachnophobia coming on…

Ticks have four life stages, and they’re ready to suck blood the moment they hatch out of the egg as a six-legged larvae. After drinking blood, they molt and become nymphs, who have eight legs, like adults, and look for larger creatures to suck on. Once the nymph has drunk its fill from some beleaguered creature, it’s ready to molt to become an adult, who looks for more blood to build its strength to mate and lay eggs…females can lay thousands of eggs, which resemble caviar. This entire process usually takes about two years but can take longer. Ticks are generally dormant in winter, and, in any stage, ticks can wait months to get their meal, which just prolongs the process.

Makes you shiver, doesn’t it?

Ticks are ancient. They drove dinosaurs crazy, too. Ticks don’t pollinate a thing. They do feed guinea fowl, opossums, and various reptiles. Of course, these animals eat other things, too, so much so that ticks really hardly show on the list of things these animals eat. Clearly, ticks are not a favorite food or even necessary nutrition. Still, they must be good for something, right?

Ticks spread disease. Lyme disease. Anaplasmosis. Bapesiosis. Erlichiosis, Powassan Virus disease, Borrelia myiamotoi disease, Colorado tick fever, Borrelia mayonii disease, Heartland virus, Bourbon virus, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Ehrlichiosis, Ricksettia parkeri rickettsiosis, STARI, Tickborne relapsing fever, 364D rickettsiosis, Tularemia…and that’s just humans here in the states. If you travel you can encounter more. Much more.

Ticks spread so much disease, in fact, that some scientists point to this as the one good thing you can say about ticks. No kidding. The thought is that tick borne diseases kill animals that might otherwise overrun the landscape. Just think! But for the ferocious blood suckers, there could be even more deer.

Believe it. The best thing about ticks is that they carry disease.

We don’t want to be part of a tick’s success story. This means – we sure don’t want to get a tick on us.

Since ticks lurk in tall grasses (above six inches) and leaf litter, we need to protect ourselves if we venture into those environments. Wear pants, socks and shoes. Tuck your pants into your socks; this will keep the ticks from actually getting on your skin. There are specialty clothes imbued with pesticides designed to kill ticks and sprays so that you can turn your favorites into tick killing monsterwear. Tempting as this is, and it does work for the purpose, the poisons may absorb through your skin. Also, since they’re sold as “good for this many washings,” the poison comes off in the wash, meaning it gets into the water supply. These aren’t exactly “nice” options.

Simple mechanical preventatives work extremely well, perhaps even better than poisons. My favorite defense is my wellies (boots with high sides, also called “rain boots”). I’ve never gotten a tick while wearing them, no matter where I go in them. Stick to paths and check yourself carefully when you get home. Double sided tape can be your friend, too. Wrap your socks and pants with some, and, in heavily infested areas, wrap it around your pants where you’ve tucked in your shirt. It can be fun seeing how many you’ve caught at the end of the day, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Next year? I’ll skip all the wondering. Ticks are no good, period.

Maureen Rice is a Master Naturalist living and writing in Talbot County.

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