Lone star tick comparison

Compared to the size of a penny, lone star ticks from an egg mass, to a larva, to a nymph, to an adult are all small, but a single larva is practically invisible.

These are big times from some of our smallest tormentors.

Many people call them “deer ticks.” That common name is confusing because there is another real species that accurately is known as deer ticks.

What we have hereabouts in obscene numbers are lone star ticks. This species, Amblyomma Americanum, occurs in three active life stages: larvae, nymphs and adults. The larvae, the tiny offspring that hatch out of lone star tick eggs, are what most people are talking about here when they say deer ticks. Lone star larvae also are called seed ticks, turkey ticks and, more confusing, turkey mites, in this region. They are baby ticks, however, not mites.

We all recognize that adult ticks are rather small. But two life stages before that, ticks are absolutely teeny tiny. Lone star tick larvae can be as small as 0.5 mm long. That is half of a single millimeter long. To put that in perspective, you would have to line up about 50 of them, from their mouthparts to the curve of their butt end to get a column of one inch long.

A bad thing about lone star larvae being so small is that we cannot see them coming. And if they are coming, it is because they want to board a human so as to suck his or her blood. Lone stars are aggressive toward humans as hosts. We must be pretty tasty to them.

A lone star larva needs one meal of blood to transform into a nymph. A nymph needs only to dine on a single blood meal to become an adult. Meanwhile, an adult female needs only one blood meal to allow her to produce and lay eggs, completing the full cycle of life.

That brings us to the present. Beginning about now, larval lone stars are busting out all over because this is their prime season to be hatching from eggs. The glory days for these big hatches and the resulting soaring numbers of larval lone stars begins in July and runs through September.

Big hatches? That is pretty well assured, even when there aren’t all that many of the adult female lone ticks. That is possible because each adult female can drop as many as 5,000 fertile eggs for a single nesting.

But there are lots of adult female lone stars. The species has been flourishing and even increasing its range in eastern North American for decades. Lone star ticks do best when there is plenty of habitat with leaf litter of hardwood timber — big forest, woodlots or even just scattered trees — and a substantial population of white-tailed deer, a major food source.

With the right habitat and tick-friendly hot, humid weather, our region is pretty much Lone Star Central and this period we are now in is the boom time for the pesky parasites’ new generation.

Right after the ticks hatch from a mass of eggs, they seek out vegetation immediately available on which to take ambush positions. They climb weeds and brush to “quest” for passing creatures that serve as blood-providing hosts. The larva (six-legged unlike the eight-legged nymphs and adults) stand on rear legs and reach upward with forward limbs.

When a deer or dog or you/I blunders by and brushes again the vegetation where the larval tick awaits, it grabs onto anything that makes contact. Entomologists say a seed tick may spend up to a day finding a patch of skin that suits it. When situated, it bores into the skin with tubular mouthparts, injecting an anesthetizing fluid as it goes. That keeps the host from feeling the initial bite.

Once attached, the tiny tick begins to suck an even tinier amount of blood, feeding for 2-7 days unless dislodged by the host. When satisfied, the larva detaches and drops off, at which point it can begin to metamorphosize to the next life phase, a nymph.

It is thought to be the latter reaction to the juice that the larva squirts into the host that causes an itchy reaction. The bite typically forms a small red bump — no significant wound, but it can leave a considerable itch. The real problem is that if you touch the wrong vegetation, you might contact several, maybe dozens, even hundreds of lone star larvae in one ill-fated swoop. Bunches of effectively invisible baby ticks might stake claims on your body, resulting in enough itchy bites to look like big patches of rash. Oh, the torment.

One positive about larval lone stars is that they are not famous for transmitting the diseases that later life stages of their species do. Nasty viruses including ehrlichiosis, southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI), Heartland virus and tularemia as well as the red meat allergy alpha-gal syndrome are all linked to lone star ticks, but hardly so the larvae.

The itchy bites are reason enough to avoid those horrid “deer ticks.” The thing to do is to use thorough coverage of insect repellent based on DEET or picaridin when one is going to be in serious tick territory, especially now and until the first hard frost.

Even better is to treat clothing with permethrin-based repellents, then follow with regular repellents on exposed skin. That is the best way to avoid feeding larval lone stars. Conscientious prevention efforts are far better than the nightmare of coping with being a hapless host.

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

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

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