Mr. Tick hatches as a tiny larva with six legs. This early in life, he can go without food for months, but eventually he needs a big meal of warm blood or he will die.
Let’s say a rabbit comes along just in time, and the tick fills his belly with life-giving blood. If the rabbit has Lyme disease, this is of no concern to the tick. He is unaffected. He goes merrily on his way searching for more food. For a passing hiker on whom the tick lands, it’s another story. The hiker is likely to pick up the virus and get sick.
With all this eating and growing, the tick needs to molt–that is, to shed the shell protecting his soft underbody. His shell can’t expand and so it must be ditched.
Molting is a long process, lasting about a month—a dangerous time for Mr. Tick. Any passing beetle or spider can devour his soft, delicious body. If the tick escapes being eaten, he grows two more legs. Now the tick is called a nymph even though the sex is still unclear. (If you’re a girl, Mr. Tick, please excuse our form of address.)
Time for another big meal. Perching on a leaf or grass stem near the ground, the tick waits for a rabbit, deer, or human to jump on. That done, he seeks a safe crevice and digs in for dinner. When he’s fat and full, he drops off to molt for the last time.
Now Mr. Tick (if it’s a he) is ready for romance. He hangs out at eating establishments–that is, on warm-blooded animals–looking for love. Mating takes place on a animal where the male and female are feeding. After that, the old story repeats itself. The female lays several thousand eggs and dies. If the male is lucky, he lives to be an old man of three.
Miracle of design
The mouth of a tick is a design masterpiece. In the center is a tube (hypostome) that comes to a point and pierces an animal’s skin. Prongs hold it in place. The tick squirts his personal glue on your skin so you can’t scratch or pull him off. The glue sits under the tick’s two palps–mouth parts that spread out on your skin. When dinner is over, the glue conveniently dissolves.
How does the tick get by with all this biting and poking? Easy. His victims don’t feel a thing. A chemical in the tick’s saliva numbs the skin and keeps the bite from getting red and itchy. Otherwise, the jig would be up.
That’s not all. Another chemical prevents normal blood clotting. A blood clot would be bad news for a tick, as it would plug his feeding tube.
The hunting game
Ticks are clever hunters. After they find a look-out spot, they push their front legs forward so they’ll brush against passing animals. Thousands of nerve endings in the tick’s legs sense approaching movement and warmth. Mr. Tick can even smell exhaled carbon dioxide.
Hidden ticks can feed for days or even weeks on a single animal if they aren’t caught—stuffing themselves until they swell to many times their normal size.
Terror of the underbrush
Ticks carry more diseases than almost any other blood-sucking insect in the world. Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever are the most common.
Lyme disease makes you hot and feverish. You get frequent headaches and feel tired and depressed. You may see a skin rash where you were bitten. It’s red at the center surrounded by a ring of normal skin, with a big pink circle around that.
If you’re diagnosed and treated soon enough, recovery is rapid. If not, soon your joints hurt, your heart behaves strangely, and your nervous system plays tricks on you
If a tick gives you Rocky Mountain spotted fever, you’ll get a different kind of rash– many small red spots, even on the hands. You’re likely to end up in the hospital because of breathing problems, hearing loss, and trouble speaking. You may not be able to walk properly. Antibiotics are the only cure, and they must be started promptly.
Avoiding tick bites
• Spray your clothes with permethrin before hiking. It kills ticks that contact the fabric. Don’t spray it on your skin. Skin chemicals quickly break permethrin down so it doesn’t work.
• Spray your skin with an insect repellent containing DEET.
• If your dog hikes with you, make sure his or her flea-tick preventive is current.
• While you’re outdoors, check your skin for ticks every few hours. If you remove them within an hour or two after they find you, infection isn’t likely.
• If a tick is buried in your skin, pull it off and count the legs. A six-legged tick (larva) is usually too young to carry disease.
• Take every tick with eight legs seriously, no matter how small. Size has nothing to do with danger.
• Shower right after hiking to wash off ticks that haven’t latched on yet. Ticks often spend hours looking for a soft, warm spot.
• Put your clothes in a drier on high for 15 minutes when you get home. That kills ticks hiding in the folds.
* * *