At IPM we call it the black-legged tick because that’s its true name. Yet most people in North America — perhaps even you, dear reader — call it the deer tick. A name with curious stories to tell.
But first the commercial: every season is tick season. Impervious to all but the most bitter cold, ticks take shelter in the leaf litter in gardens and woods. Whenever it gets a little above freezing, they crawl out and up. Any adults that failed to find a host earlier in winter or fall scramble into knee-high vegetation. (Females need a blood meal before they can lay eggs.) There they wait patiently for some critter to brush against whatever stalk they’re clinging to, and when it does — they grab hold.
Even during this fickle February of 2016, when many places south of the Adirondacks have repeatedly lost their snow cover, leaving the barren ground to freeze hard, those ticks keep ticking along. Yes, many die. But many remain. On lovely sunshiny days when you wander outside to shake off a bout of cabin fever, be sure to dress right to keep ticks off you.
And having done that, relentlessly check yourself for ticks when you get inside.
Now back to our story. That name — deer tick — suggests that deer carry Lyme disease. If you’ve had a bout with Lyme or any of the less-than-pleasant co-infections that black-legged ticks also vector, just thinking of Bambi could give you the chills. But while deer assuredly spread ticks far and wide, they don’t vector Lyme. Which means a tick that is Lyme-free won’t pick up the Lyme pathogen from a deer.
The buck stops there.
The critters that most commonly carry Lyme disease — notably mice, but also shrews and chipmunks — assuredly do get Lyme disease. But odd as it seems, it doesn’t knock them out. Instead they just keep chugging along, doing their mouse or shrew or chipmunk thing. Which includes transmitting the Lyme pathogen to ticks throughout their life cycle. Ticks that grow larger and larger. Ticks that eventually — instead of hanging out low to the ground where the mice are — become large enough to scramble into knee-high vegetation where they’re yet more likely to land on some hapless human. Or dog, raccoon, fox, coyote, skunk, cat, sheep, a ground-nesting bird, cow, horse … the list goes on.
Some, like deer and probably other wild animals, don’t get particularly ill — though it’s not been closely studied. But dogs, horses, and humans (less likely, cats) can get knocked for a loop. Even so, we likewise don’t transmit Lyme; the tick would already need to be infected. The buck stops there.
The next commercial: about that tick that snuck aboard during your post-lunch walk in the curiously warm February sun … you might not have as much time to deal with it as once was thought. Sure, in some cases it’ll be 24 to 48 hours before that tick starts transmitting Lyme. And not every tick carries Lyme or other diseases.
But still, better safe than sorry. Because recent research suggests: as you sit down to dinner that tick might already be dining too, but with consequences you don’t want to bear. Knowing that, relentlessly check yourself for ticks when you get inside. And even if you don’t care for school grounds or a summer camp, this IPM fact sheet is rich with useful information.
Many thanks to Rick Ostfeld (Senior Scientist, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies) and Joellen Lampman (Turfgrass Specialist, NYS IPM).