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June 2012
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Bloodsucker revival About now, it takes little more than a thaw to bring out the ticks

By Steve Vantreese

Even though it's been like living on frozen tundra lately, arachnids could be sneaking up on you.

Officially, winter has another dozen days left. And who could deny that this winter has been harsher than what's customary? Here lately, anything above the freezing mark has been greatly welcomed.

But the rarer mild days this time of year can be spring as far as ticks are concerned. The blood-sucking vermin that have been buried in leaf and soil litter for winter could appear and resume their pestilence at any time â “ today, even.

Any time we get a hard winter with copious frozen precipitation and extreme cold, somebody will note that "at least it will kill more of the bugs." Don't hold your breath on that.

Ticks, like other creepy crawlers and flying pests, have evolved with changing seasons and varied temperatures and weather. They survive blistering heat in summer and frigid cold in winter.

Not only do ticks endure extreme cold, all it takes this time of year to bring them out of their arachnid hibernation and into activity are temperatures slightly more than freezing. Ticks rouse and get back in the game well before full-blown spring conditions.

Entomologists say it's fair for ticks to resume activity at any point above freezing. A considerable outpouring of tick movement might be encountered as soon as the ground temperature hits the range of 40 to 45 degrees. On a sunny day in March, this could develop over a few hours.

I can recall plopping down in the woods, taking a break during a late winter hike in early March one year. The morning temperature had been around freezing. During the sunny early afternoon it was probably 50ish. As I sat there in the leaves, the forest floor seemed to come alive with ticks â “ and suddenly winter was over. Tick season was on.

The most abundant tick species we have hereabouts is the lone star tick. Ticks look like ticks, but the most recognizable feature of the lone star is that adult female has a creamy white spot in the middle of its back.

The other major tick species that is endured locally is the American dog tick.

Both lone star and dog ticks have similar life cycles. They occur in three phases after hatching from eggs: first as tiny six-legged larvae, then as eight-legged, miniature nymphs and finally as their full-sized eight-legged adults. Ticks in the two younger phases each needs a single blood meal to metamorphose into the next phase.

One difference in the species is that the smallest, larval stage of lone star ticks readily uses humans as hosts â “ they feed on us. Dog tick larvae don't. The larval lone stars are what people around here call "deer ticks" or "seed ticks" or even "turkey mites." But they aren't other species or different organisms like mites; they're the youngsters of the lone star tick set.

As ticks become active any day now, it's mostly the adults that you might encounter emerging. They first will be seen in areas where dead and decaying leaves and plant matter are on the ground. That's their favored overwintering area and, indeed, their primary habitat. Ticks may show up early in lawns and fields to some extent, but mostly they will be in the woods or among scattered trees.

Adult ticks are the early starters, the phase of the critters that can activate in February (not so likely this year) and peak in apparent numbers in about May. By June, adult ticks will decline, or at least they will be lesser encountered.

Activity by the smaller, second-stage nymphs picks up later in the spring. They are seen through summer, but they are most apparent from mid to late May into June.

Pinhead-size larvae are hard to see at any time because they are so tiny. They are most apparent in July and a little later just after they hatch from eggs.

Lone star larvae â “ the ones that bite us â “ are particularly worrisome because a human who brushes against the wrong bush or weed can be boarded and bitten by scores, even hundreds of them in one ill-fated contact. That's because a lone star adult female will lay 3,000 to 8,000 eggs in one ugly expulsion in late spring. A mass of babies hatch and go up vegetation to ambush you right there.

We'd like to avoid any tick bites. Dog ticks are worst about transmitting Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Lone stars are more linked to transmission of southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI), human ehrlichiosis and, nowadays, a relatively newly discovered (and still rare) illness called the Heartland virus.

Health officials still say that Lyme disease isn't linked to tick species found in our region. Yet, while Lyme isn't even associated with our ticks and the vast majority of tick bites transmit no ailments, we want to dodge all the bites we can.

DEET repellents remain the standard for fending off ticks. When ticks are a higher risk, however, you can't do better than treating your clothing with a permethrin-based spray.

It seems goofy talking about repellents now when we've just experienced a miniature ice age. But as soon as the glaciers recede, here come ticks.

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at outdoors@paducahsun.com.

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