I had returned home from a day hike in 1990 and was changing clothes when I noticed a pinkish ring with about an inch radius on my thigh. Looking more closely, I could see what appeared to be a tiny black dot in its center.
I showed this odd appearance to my wife. She first asked if I had fallen and bruised myself. Satisfied that I had not, she got out a magnifying glass to peer at the black dot.
"It looks as though it might be an insect," she said. "Let me see if I can dig it out." And she proceeded to work with a needle and tweezers to remove whatever it was. Unfortunately it came out in parts and it was still so small we wondered if it might even be some kind of hardened debris.
Doris called Jacques Berlin, Wayne Gall's predecessor as entomologist for the New York State Health Department's Buffalo office, to ask if he could identify what we had found. Berlin told her to save what she had removed in alcohol and bring it to his downtown office.
We learned that it was a deer tick, also known as a black-legged tick. Unfortunately, the mess we made of it made it impossible to tell if it carried any of the three Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria species that are more commonly known as Lyme disease. Not taking any chances, I visited our local emergency room, where a doctor assigned a regimen of antibiotics. For me, that was the end of the matter. Because the testing provided no evidence and the antibiotics headed off any possible infection, I'll never know whether that tick harbored the disease.
But I took the possibility of Lyme disease seriously, and so should you. Untreated it can lead to very serious complications: first, flu-like symptoms; then, arthritic swelling and pain, particularly in the knees; and, finally, even heart, nerve and eye problems.
The possibility of acquiring this disease should not keep you indoors, however, it should urge you to take simple precautions. When you visit a suspect area, wear a long-sleeved shirt and tuck your pants into your socks. I do not support the recommendation to spray clothing with an insect repellent containing permethrin, because some people suffer extreme allergic reactions to this chemical.
If, despite these precautions, you are bitten, dab the tick with alcohol, remove it gently with tweezers and take it to your doctor. Don't delay: treated early, the infection is easily defeated; it takes more than 24 hours for the bacteria to be transmitted to your bloodstream.
The complicated two-year, four-stage life cycle of the deer tick requires three different animal hosts. Adult female ticks are widespread now, having overwintered in the leaf litter after engorging themselves last fall for four or five days on their first host, deer. At this stage the ticks are about an eighth of an inch in size and easily visible. That's about half the size of dog ticks. Shortly after they lay eggs, these adults will die.
In June and July, those eggs will hatch into tiny six-legged larvae. Peak larval activity occurs in August, when larvae attach and feed on a variety of mostly small mammals and birds, most commonly on white-footed and deer mice. After feeding for three to five days, engorged larvae drop from the host to the ground where they remain through fall and winter.
At this time of year, these now year-old larvae molt into eight-legged nymphs, which feed on a variety of hosts for three to four days. In a similar manner, engorged nymphs detach and drop to the forest floor, where they molt into the adult stage, which becomes active in October.
Adult ticks remain active through the winter on days when the ground and ambient temperatures are above freezing. Adult female ticks feed for five to seven days, while male ticks feed only sparingly, if at all. At both the nymph and adult stages, we humans are among the hosts for these little blood-suckers, and that means that we can attract these arachnids during any part of the year.
Largely because of that mild winter, a surge in the number of these ticks is predicted for this year. Be warned.