It is late July, maybe early August, and the forest sits idly in anticipation of the autumnal glory. Everything in the forest gets lazy during this time of year. The squirrels aren’t yet scurrying about for hickory nuts, the deer aren’t chasing one another about in a mating frenzy, the wild turkey feeds only at dawn and dusk . . . even the wind stops blowing, unless there’s a late summer thunderstorm to shake a few acorns out of the trees.
But beneath the stillness and the drone of the cicadas and crickets, something evil is taking place. It’s silent, unnoticed for all except the earthworms and beetles that slither beneath the leaf litter on the forest floor: Tick eggs are hatching.
And in our neck of the woods, oh boy are they hatching.
It’s said that the rocky and sandy soils of the northern Cumberland Plateau aren’t good for growing much of anything, which is why the Big South Fork region has never really had a cash crop outside of coal and timber.
Well, let’s go ahead and set the narrative straight. There’s one thing we can grow pretty doggone good in these sandy soils. We can grow the heck out of ticks.
If you’re one of those fortunate souls who has never experienced the horror of looking down after a trip afield to discover army of about a zillion seed ticks marching up your leg to burrow themselves beneath the elastic of your underwear or your socks, behind your knees and wherever else they can find a spot to munch, you can’t quite know the agony that something smaller than the period at the end of this sentence can cause.
I don’t know the evolutionary beginning of ticks but I’m positive they’re not of God. I’m convinced that the first Lonestar tick crawled directly out of the pits of hell, because its offspring are literally the spawn of Satan.
The life cycle of a Lonestar tick is just as revulsive as one might expect from a parasitic nightmare. The tick goes through three stages of growth, and each stage requires a “blood meal,” which basically mean that it attaches itself to a host and gorges itself on blood. They’re pinhead-sized vampires, and not the kind that the pretty girls fall for on The CW.
The adult Lonestar tick, once fully gorged, drops from its host and promptly lays eggs — lots and lots of eggs (as many as 5,000) — on the forest floor.
And then she dies, which is the only redeeming quality she has.
Meanwhile, the freshly-hatched larvae crawl to the tips of weeds and tree leaves with their thousands of brothers and sisters, awaiting an unsuspecting victim through a process that scientists refer to as “questing.” When the victim brushes against the leaf or weed, he immediately becomes host to hundreds or even thousands of the larvae, which immediately set about the process of looking for somewhere to dig in with their tiny teeth.
Congratulations, you’ve just been infected with seed ticks, and your life is about to be made miserable.
Some people mistakenly believe that seed ticks are a special species of dwarf ticks, and they refer to tiny ticks in the spring and early summer as seed ticks. This isn’t correct. Seed ticks are merely baby ticks, smaller versions of those ticks with the white spot on their back that are so commonly seen, and they don’t emerge until late summer or early fall.
The Lonestar tick is an evil beast in general, chock full of disease-causing bacteria. While its larvae are generally too small to carry the most serious diseases, like Lyme disease or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, they can cause other illnesses, such as tick paralysis and even a life-threatening allergic reaction to eating red meat. Imagine: Never being able to eat another hamburger or ribeye steak because a dumb ol’ tick decided to “quest” on you.
Lonestar ticks are three-meal ticks, which means each of their blood meals must come from a different host as they mature. The larvae feed on rodents and small mammals, the nymphs feed on medium-sized mammals, and the adults typically feed on larger mammals, like dogs and deer. Humans, as luck would have it, are among the hosts that ticks will feed on in all three stages. Lucky us.
Something happens when a tick bites. The saliva they spit into us contains a chemical that causes itching. That might not be such a big deal with an adult tick, but seed ticks don’t travel solo. Where one goes, a million go. So one itchy tick bite becomes thousands.
And there’s something else sinister about ticks. They contain a natural painkiller, called kininases, which prevents us from feeling their bites — so they can dig in and engorge themselves while we’re unaware. But they don’t contain an antihistamine to stop the itching that follows. The itch is the tick’s parting gift, remaining long after the bloodsucker has been burned by a match or flushed down the toilet.
There’s no scientific reason for why seed tick bites itch at times that are most inconvenient — like at night, when we should be asleep, or during an important meeting, leaving us scratching ourselves like a flea-infested hound dog while our bosses and clients look at us like we just crawled out from under a rock. (“‘Scuse me, I got ticks” isn’t an appropriate explanation in such settings.)
But itch we will — for days, maybe even a week, after a seed tick infestation. And so it is, at this time of year, that every outdoor excursion becomes a flirtation with danger; every walk through a woodland area a nerve-racking trip through a minefield, never knowing where thousands of those parasitic bloodsuckers await — scheming and questing at the tip of a weed or sapling, just waiting for an unsuspecting blood meal to happen by.