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It’s only mid-May. We have already twisted several ticks out of our bodies.

At least the black flies mostly stay outside and will subside in a week or so. The ticks ride right into the house with you or the cat and won’t go away until about November. Not even then, really. Deer tick eggs hatch in the spring and the larvae spend the summer sucking blood from small animals like mice, chipmunks and birds. When it gets cold, they dig into the leaf litter or rotten trees and mainly wait for the cold to pass. In spring they molt into nymphs and start sucking blood again, and this is when they start being infectious with Lyme disease and anaplasmosis and such, because they got the bacteria from earlier meals and now pass it on when they gorge again — the females, that is. At the end of summer they molt into adults and spend the winter active, on white-tailed deer who may already be infected, or again in the ground waiting for a host. They come out in spring, lay eggs, and then die, completing a two-year life cycle.

If you can’t remember ticks being much of a problem when you were a kid, it’s because they weren’t. You might get a tick on you, nasty enough, but no one got hosed down with repellent and warned to be careful of them, because there weren’t that many compared to now. Mosquitoes were the problem in olden Woodstock times like the 1960s, not ticks.

The symptoms of Lyme disease itself have been described for thousands of years, according to the Yale School of Medicine. But not much notice was taken of it until the 1960s, when families in the vicinity of Lyme, Connecticut, started a citizen-science investigation of weird rashes and illnesses. Soon scientists took over the project, and in 1982 Dr. Willy Burgdorfer zeroed in on the deer tick (aka blacklegged tick) as the vector for the disease caused by a nasty bacterium that was eventually named Borrelia burgdorferi.

After the 1980s, tick populations in the Northeast exploded, and this has pretty surely been a result of warming winters, aka climate change, which has created the ecological conditions for ticks to thrive, especially along the southern and midcoast. In recent years, “You can’t even walk in the woods anymore because the ticks are unbelievable,” as longtime Morrill resident and poet Jacqueline Moore bluntly put it. Preparing for a safe excursion into the woods requires precautions that make bundling up for winter days seem like a trip to the park.

How do you keep them off you? Wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts, boots, gloves, a hat, tuck your pant legs into your boots, your shirtsleeves into your gloves, and find an insect repellent that will work that you think won’t eventually poison you or your backyard. The most recent Maine Entomological Society newsletter recommends dousing your clothes with a solution of the insecticide permethrin. When used right, it will remain effective in the treated clothes through quite a number of washings, and as long as you don’t drink it or spray directly on your skin, permethrin’s not going to bother your health because the body flushes it out in trace amounts very effectively. Cats don’t, though, so keep that in mind.

I’m no more interested in taking a chance with tick-borne disease than I am with COVID-19. Two Julys ago I started feeling intense fatigue, running a mild temperature, having joint pain and strange random dizzy spells. (A rash often goes with Lyme, too, though I did not have it.) Dr. Kriegel said this sounds like it could be a tick-borne illness, and I took antibiotics for a month because Lyme disease can get so bad that not only does the pain worsen but serious mental instabilities can set in. The Maine CDC said there were at least 2,150 confirmed and probable Lyme cases last year.

Deer ticks that carry Lyme disease are tiny, lumbering specks really. When we find one dug into our skin, we use a tick-twisting device that looks like a toy syringe with plastic pincers, given to us by one of Bonnie’s health providers, to remove it. The advantage of the tick-twister versus just a pair of tweezers is that the tweezers might tear the body away and leave the tick’s head in your skin, which is not only repulsive but can lead to worse infection.

I have two specimens quarantined in a vial that I’m planning to send to the University of Maine Tick Lab, which in mid-May had already received nearly 800 specimens. Hopefully these prisoners are dead. But I don’t count on it. Last fall I captured a big, fat, blood-swollen tick on the floor that apparently had fallen off the cat. I put it in a vial and forgot about it. Six months or so later I got it out, assuming it was dead, to show my teenage grandson Zach. We put it under a little desk microscope. Soon we noticed the tick’s tiny legs seemed to be twitching. More than twitching, they were waving. The damn thing was still alive.

If you want to join the resistance and own 10 to 1,000 acres of woodland in a southern or coastal part of the state, you might want to volunteer your citizen science skills to the Maine Forest Tick Survey.

If we think really hard, maybe we can stop these ticks.

 

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected]. His recent book is “Summer to Fall: Notes and Numina from the Maine Woods,” available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.


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