How I Learned to Start Worrying and Hate the Tick Bomb

This guest post was written by Brookhaven Lab science writing intern Kenrick Vezina, who will be sharing Brookhaven science stories from inside and outside laboratories on site through mid December.

I'm about to enter the well-worn, vegetation-free (read: tick-free) pathway that cuts through the forest near my dorm. I'm about two steps down the trail when I hear a screech from somewhere in the canopy overhead. It's not the full-out war cry of a red-tailed hawk -- the sound we've been trained by television to expect from the beak of every bird of prey -- but it definitely sounds like a raptor. On my honor as a naturalist, I must investigate.

I can't spot the bird, but it continues making furtive, rasping calls, as though taunting me to step off the trail to find it. It's moving further into the woods. I look at the edge of the forest. White-tailed deer have eliminated most of the undergrowth, but there's still enough low vegetation to make a haven for ticks. I shouldn't.

Still, I think, I'll be careful -- just a few steps, and I'll check myself for any unwanted hangers-on in just a moment.

Long story short, I don't find the hawk, and, mildly disappointed, I resume my walk home. An idle glance downward reveals some mud stains on the bottom of my pants. Odd, I didn't think the ground was wet.

Then, I watch in equal parts horror and awe as the "stains" begin to disassemble into hundreds of individual specks.

Two words: tick bomb!

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A female dog tick (right) and blacklegged tick (left) side-by-side on an inch-scale ruler. Larval ticks are much smaller even than this -- about the size of the period at the end of this sentence.

Each speck turned out to be a tick larva, smaller than the head of a pin. This time of year, says BNL's Cultural and Natural Resource Manager Tim Green, tick egg masses are hatching, which means there are gobs of tiny, newborn ticks clustered on low-lying plants, just waiting for their first blood meal.

You can imagine my dismay at realizing I was potential host for more ticks than I could count, but rest assured that tossing my pants into the dryer for an hour was more than enough to kill all the larvae. (Ticks are very sensitive to humidity, and they die quickly if they dry out.)

Let my experience be a warning: if you're going into the woods, don't take chances -- try these tips:

â¢Wear long pants and long sleeves.
â¢Use insect repellent.
â¢Be sure to check yourself for ticks.
â¢If you do get bitten, follow up with a doctor.

Thanks to everyone who provided warm words in response to my first post. If you're a BNLer, or if you're just familiar with the ecology on Long Island, I'd love to hear about your own experiences in the comments. Perhaps you can tip me off to interesting things to investigate. And don't hesitate to share any questions.

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