I told you a couple of weeks ago that yellow jackets are the satan spawn of the fall season.
That’s only partially true.
The whole truth is this: When it comes to devilish misers of autumn, yellow jackets are jockeying for position with seed ticks.
The two couldn’t be more different, except for the fact that they attack in bunches, bringing all their friends and family to the party when they’ve spotted an unsuspecting victim. A seed tick’s bite doesn’t inflict the same immediate pain as a yellow jacket’s sting. But long after a yellow jacket’s hurt has subsided, seed ticks will have you awake at night, scratching at your sock line, the backs of your knees, your waist-line and your . . . well, you know . . . until you draw blood and your fingernails fall off.
Some people have a misperception about seed ticks. They mistakenly call smallish ticks found in spring or early summer “seed ticks.”
But as any battle-weary outdoorsman can tell you, seed ticks don’t truly show up until the end of summer, and they never travel about solo.
True seed ticks are roughly the size of a poppy seed — so small they resemble tiny flecks of dirt — and where there is one there are hundreds.
The irony of seed ticks is that they’re tick larvae . . . they’re babies. Typically, babies aren’t to be feared. Lion cubs are cuddly, cape buffalo calves scare no one. Presumably, people even crowded around the nursery window to ooh and aah over the baby Mike Tyson.
But tick babies are pure evil on six legs. In the larvae stage, their saliva causes an allergic reaction, which means we itch. Oh, boy, do we itch. There’s nothing that will make you want to douse yourself in gasoline and set yourself afire like stumbling through a mess of seed ticks.
Seed ticks are the offspring of lone star ticks, those little brown jerks with a spot on their back. (Actually, it is only the female lone star ticks that have the spot . . . it’s a pretty good branding mechanism, though, since all female lone star ticks should be identified and killed to prevent egg-laying.) The good news is that lone star ticks cannot easily transmit Lyme disease to humans. The bad news is they give us seed ticks. (And transmit the heartland virus, which is rare but severe.)
Lone star ticks lay eggs by the hundreds. They don’t hatch until late July, which explains why they don’t begin showing up on our bodies when we stroll through the forest until August and September. Their three-stage life cycle is pretty gross. Basically, those little baby ticks are looking for a blood meal that allows them to mutate. Once they’ve sucked on your leg, if you don’t douse them in alcohol and flush their little poppy-seed butts down the toilet, they’ll fall off to the ground and become nymphs. Then they’ll crawl onto another host, have themselves another blood meal, and fall off to mutate into adult lone star ticks.
All of that adds up to one thing: they itch.
And because they’re active up until the first frost comes along and forces them to retreat into the ground to stay warm, walking through the woods this time of year is like walking through a mine field. The slightest brush against a tree limb can transmit hundreds of the little brown buggers from the tree’s foliage onto your body.
Because of that, I can testify that I’m much more afraid of seed ticks than I am of bears and snakes. Despite the size of their teeth, I’ve never encountered a bear that wanted to gnaw on my leg. And rattlesnakes at least have the common decency to rattle and alert you to their presence.
Of the three, seed ticks are the only one who wants to eat me. And that’s reason enough for me to slather down in insect repellant before I head into the woods this time of year. Failure to do so is to invite pain and misery into your life from the tiniest of perpetrators.