The year 2020 has broken the record books on numerous environmental phenomena, from more hurricanes hitting the US, to terribly large and ubiquitous wild fires in the west.
But here in the Northeast, specifically Western NY, we are experiencing an unprecedented acorn fall.
And while the bumper crop of acorns bodes well for wildlife that feeds on the nutritious nuts, we need to take extra precautions next year for a tsunami of Lyme disease.
The major crawly vector for Lyme disease, the bane of outdoors people, is of course, the Deer tick, a tiny black, blood-sucking arachnid.
The Blacklegged tick, Ixodes scapularis, has a complex, two-year life cycle. And when there are more acorns and mast, there will be more deer ticks the following TWO years.
Lyme disease is a relatively new disease, being named in Lyme, Connecticut where it was first discovered in 1975, after noting a high incidence of arthritis in the local human population.
The deer tick has three basic sizes during its two-year march to adulthood. As a nymph, it is six-legged and about the size of a little black poppy seed.
The following year, it is about the size of a sesame seed … until it latches on to a host by engorging itself with blood. As in the way of its kind, the tick’s abdomen swells to wild grape size. But before it feeds on the blood of a host, the little vampire matures to about apple-seed size.
Once the tick latches on with its feeding apparatus, the exchange of bodily fluids between the host and the tick create the pathway for the pathogen, in this case a bacteria.
Deer ticks are the hosts for the bacteria that actually causes Lyme disease, Borrelia burgdorferi, a member of the family of spirochetes, apply named for a corkscrew-shaped bacteria.
The deer tick is not a choosey feeder. As a diminutive six-legged nymph, it will latch on to everything from dogs and cats to mice, birds, deer, humans, horses, and even salamanders. The nymphs are very small, about the size of the period at the end of this sentence.
Heavy mast crops of acorns and beechnuts tend to concentrate animals that feed on the nutritious nuts. And there, the female deer tick will drop a mass of about 1,500 eggs or so in these high-traffic areas. When the tiny eggs hatch, the little, period-sized nymphs need to feed and will hook on to the first critter, rodent, man, or beast that comes within its grasp.
I have noticed that deer ticks often will stalk their prey (us) by crawling up on a branch or twig, sometimes a couple feet high. When we brush against the bug’s perch, the tick quickly jumps onto the new meal ticket, usually my pants or boot.
I mostly find them on my pant legs … but of course a dog or deer pick them on their legs too.
Incidentally, here is where the humble opossum is elevated to superhero status. Researchers estimate that possums will eat up to 5,000 ticks in one season, being great groomers. So save the possums!
After the tick’s early nymph stage, in its second year, the tick molts and changes into an eight-legged crawler and again, must feed to grow and continue the life cycle.
Hunters, and all of us who venture afield, need to carefully examine our clothing each and every time we have been afield or risk being bitten.
Since deer ticks feed four times in the entire two-year life cycle, researchers have determined that the common and ubiquitous white-footed mouse is one of the main vectors or carriers of the disease.
And when we have a bumper acorn fall, the next year the we get an explosion in the wild rodent population, both mice and squirrels.
A deer tick will feed on an infected mouse, chipmunk, bird, or squirrel, then drops off. It will in that way, pass on the bacteria to the next host/meal ticket, it can find.
A peak activity time for adult deer ticks is in the fall, right now during hunting season and when the acorns and wild apples have fallen and temperatures are mild.
There are a number of topical anti-tick sprays on the market, but there is no substitute for a careful inspection of your clothing, your body, and your pets.
Oak Duke writes a weekly column appearing on the Outdoors page.