A couple of weeks ago I took an eight-mile walk in the Big Woods, some of it on what turned out to be a partially overgrown trail. Because the original plan was to walk on old woods roads and maintained trails, my field pants had been left hanging in the garage and I’d worn just plain jeans. Walking on the overgrown trail, I happened to look down and there on my pants leg was a black-legged tick. By the time I got back on an old road I’d picked nine of the ticks from my pants – and wondered if I’d missed any.
From 1970 until 2001 I’d played and worked in the Big Woods and only once found a tick anywhere on me, and that was one of the comparatively large dog ticks. Then, in the spring of 2001 a deer tick as it was called then (now re-named black-legged tick) embedded itself in my side. That was the beginning, since then I’ve had several embedded black-legged ticks each year. The total number seen crawling on my pants is now beyond remembering.
Ticks wouldn’t be anything but a yucky annoyance if they didn’t carry a number of very unpleasant diseases. Some of the diseases that ticks transmit to humans are fairly uncommon, but Lyme disease isn’t at all uncommon. Most outdoors folks have heard of Lyme disease and the debilitating problems that can result from an untreated infection – extreme fatigue, severe headaches, swollen joints and arthritis, heart problems and mental disorders. It’s not a disease that anyone should take for granted.
My field pants are regularly sprayed with the insecticide Permethrin, which is reported to have very low toxicity to mammals, be poorly absorbed through the skin once it’s dry, and rapidly inactivated if it is absorbed. Only once have I had an embedded tick following a day in the field wearing treated pants. Permethrin works – I’ve taken ticks that were crawling on my pants and put them in a specimen bottle, 10-15 minutes later they were dead.
Spring and fall have been the worst times for picking up a tick since they require high humidity and tend to spend the summer on the ground in the leaf litter instead of on vegetation searching for a host.
|Adult Female and Nymph - from University of Maine|
Speaking of hosts, adult black-legged ticks spend the winter on deer, while the nymphs feed on white-footed mice and other small hosts in warmer weather. It’s those mice that carry Lyme disease and where the ticks acquire the parasite. Several studies have shown that in some areas as many as 30-40% of black-legged ticks carry the disease and that, while the numbers vary widely, there may easily be over 150 infected ticks per acre.
A couple of years ago a fiend and I had walked through a forested area when it was 34° and snowing. We got back to the car and there on my pants leg were two black-legged ticks crawling about. With a warming climate black-legged ticks may well be active year-round. So, all of us who spend time outdoors – farmers, hunters, hikers, fishermen, naturalists ... anyone – can expect to encounter ticks. But, that won’t keep me out of the woods and hopefully it won’t deter anyone else from enjoying the outdoors.