Friday, July 22, 2011

Seed tick season

It all happened so fast this summer. One day I'm traipsing through a woodland filled with knee high pale purple coneflowers picking off the occasional monster tick from my off white field trousers. Today, in the same trusty field trousers, I casually look downwards on my hike through buckbrush woods to see 2 million little seed ticks spreading across my leg. I take all the precautions (tape up the ankles with duct tape, spray nerve toxin DEET on my trouser ankles and shoes), and wear off white trousers to see them easily. But late July through the first frost in the Ozarks is high time for seed ticks.

I recall the first encounter with them as I hiked through my favorite woods. They're imperceptibly small, smaller than black pepper flakes, and seed ticks have a rather miraculous ability to find their way all over one's body. (I think they burrow through seams.) My ankles were taped up, I was sprayed down, but that night in my hotel room I manically scratched and clawed my ankles until I saw them up close with my handlens: seed ticks are 6 legged little tick larvae seen best under a 10X handlens. And there were hundreds, thousands of them all over my legs. The only relief came when I jumped fully clothed into an over-chlorinated pool and stayed there for 20 minutes or more.

Of course, with the deer overpopulation problem exploding across the Ozarks, we can expect even greater tick populations in the woods. Burn and thin your woods, restore them to a luxurious grass-forb mix and deer move in to take advantage of nature's food plot unless they're kept in check. Even in unburned woods, however, there are still too many deer and, therefore, ticks. With the cultural penchant for hunting, I never ever thought it would be possible for the Ozarks to have a deer problem, but they do.

Imagine over 200 years ago when the early explorers first set out across the Ozarks and encountered seed ticks. Several writers mention seed ticks, and write eloquently about the irritation they cause as they bite and burrow into supple skin. No pool of chlorine to jump into, and no Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Castile Soap that kills seed ticks instantly. The Ozarks have always had ticks.

Seed ticks are the recently hatched tick larvae and possess 6 legs. Ticks have a fascinating life history: One female can lay 3,000-6,000 eggs in leaf litter. After the eggs hatch, the larval stage (seed ticks) will wait for a host while perched in large clusters at the end of plants. They will then find a host, become engorged, and molt to become an 8 legged tick nymph. Same story again, after the nymph feeds enough and is engorged it will molt into an adult. When the adults feed enough to become engorged, they will mate. After laying her thousands of eggs, the adult female tick will die.

I recall my undergradauate ecology professor who, like myself, grew weary of hearing students ask "what's the purpose of [insert insect here]?" This year, I heard people grousing about cicadas. My esteemed professor explained that natural history does not have a purpose, but a function and relationship. So, what's a tick's purpose? Well, their function is to reproduce, just like humans (but not me), and their relationship is to provide a food source for other creatures (especially quail). Their annoyance to humans is just lagnaippe.

Seed ticks can be avoided by staying in tidy mowed lawns from late July-late October. If, like me, you're not scared to go in the woods when there are bugs around, tape the trouser ankles, don't wear shorts in the woods, and enjoy this remarkable time of year when the brilliant yellow flowers of four species of Silphium are blooming throughout the Ozarks.


Anonymous said...

Any luck with Permethrin clothing treatments?

James C. Trager said...

So, you find lagnaippes annoying? :)

Allison Vaughn said...

I've never tried Permethrin, and it sort of scares me how potent it is. The warnings that the chemical should not come into contact with human flesh is creepy. My poor field trousers are washed daily in hotel sinks or in campgrounds and hung up to dry on my car. They could probably walk on their own now I wear them so much. The smell of Cutter reminds me of Girl Scout Camp.

James, you're silly. I just think their natural history is pretty interesting. Boy, do they itch.