Black sesame seeds

By Alice Darlington

I thought I was living in a horror movie! Every time I looked down at the young golden retriever, I saw another small black sesame seed surface on his head, only I knew it wasn’t a seed. It was a deer tick!

I’d pluck it off and put it into my tick jar, a jar filled with alcohol that I keep near me so that I don’t have to go to the bathroom each time I find a tick. After taking about 10 ticks off the golden, I thought I was finished because he is the tick magnet, whereas my black lab has a slippery close coat that seems to repel most ticks. But no, I looked down at her and saw shiny spots in her black hair and, yes, it was one, two, no another nine deer ticks! I thought I had gotten pretty used to them, but I really haven’t. In fact, although I have always loved winter, this year I am wishing it would hurry up and come. I am actually annoyed when the forecast calls for another warm 60s day!

I have never seen so many ticks regardless of where the dogs have been, especially this late in the year.  Long ago, I did find one deer tick on our cat in November. That was a big surprise. Now, it’s ho hum, another! The other day, I was cleaning when the vacuum sucked in a small black jellybean from under a footstool and I realized it was an engorged tick, no doubt dead and therefore detached from the lab that likes to sleep in the nearby chair. Ho, hum, another!

I have even taken to sexing ticks, male or female! The males are smaller and all black, true sesame seed look-alikes; the females have a brown shield-like back behind their black heads. I learned this from the Internet. I discovered that there is a great deal to learn about ticks. Frankly, I’m becoming more confused with the more I learn. Turns out that a tick larva looks a lot like a female tick — black head and bronze shield back, but the larva has only six legs, whereas the nymphs and adults have eight. I never thought to count! True, I have a quantity in my two tick jars, but I think I won’t start counting tick legs.

The tick cycle starts with the tick eggs hatching into larvae in spring.  They then climb up a blade of grass and wait for a small animal such as a mouse to pass by and brush up against the larva that then attaches and takes its first blood meal after which it drops off and molts into a nymph. Interestingly, nymphs are sexless, neither male nor female. These then seek out higher brush to climb so that they can attach to larger hosts such as deer, dogs or humans for another blood meal, dropping off after and, in this case, usually overwintering to molt into adults in the second spring. Adults follow the same routine of climbing up brush, higher still, to attach onto larger creatures such as deer and bears. It is here that males and females find each other to mate. The female falls off, producing as many as 3,000 eggs, and then she dies. The ticks around in November are most probably adults or nymphs.

The warm, wet weather is to blame, I think, as well as the warm wet summer and as this is obviously a boom year for deer ticks, perhaps the animals they feed on are also thriving. It would appear that more deer means more deer ticks.

I wish I knew what likes to prey on ticks! Does anything? They seem to be so small and tough it would be difficult for a wasp to pierce that body to lay its egg inside as wasps do with so many other insects and spiders. It turns out that when ticks are engorged, some wasps do pierce these fat targets and deposit their larvae inside to parasitize them. Also, I’m told that guinea fowl enjoy ticks and wild turkeys can consume up to 200 a day and pheasants, around 50, but if this is true, they are not making a dent in the tick population this year. More predators definitely needed!

My husband asks what purpose ticks serve, why do they exist? He asks the same question about mosquitoes. I give the same answer — no purpose, they exist to exist just as we humans do, and they seem to be pretty good at surviving, just as we humans are, at least for the present. Long term, who knows but if I had to wager on ticks versus humans, I unhappily would place my bet on ticks.

Alice Darlington is a resident of Casco.

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