Exclaim the alarm: The deer ticks are coming.
Except, well, they are already here to a lesser extent. And they are not really deer ticks, anyway.
Hereabouts, we have a lot of tiny, blood-sucking arachnids commonly called deer ticks. These ticks hatch in mass numbers in July and August, so we’re just about to have lots more.
These miniature monsters are really the new hatchling offspring of lone star ticks. These ticks exist first as eggs, then as three stages of life — larvae, nymphs and adults.
The first stage of walking-around, biting, blood-sucking parasites, the larvae of the lone star species, are what people here are talking about when they say deer ticks.
That is unfortunate, because there is a long-established common name of deer tick that is used for the black-legged tick, Ixodes scapularis. It is not the same critter as the lone star tick, Amblyomma americanum.
Our region and Kentucky in general are not known to support a population of deer ticks/black-legged ticks. But our resources of lone star ticks are abundant.
Lone star ticks are aggressive parasites and the most likely tick to board and bite a passing human in most of the Southeast and south-central states. Entomologists say lone stars have been increasing within their traditional range as well as expanding to newer habitat for 20 to 30 years, now claiming most of the eastern U.S. as their creeping grounds.
The lone star tick is chestnut brown, oval in shape, and the female adult bears the signature characteristic, a single white spot on her back. Adult females can be one-eighth inches or a little longer, and males are a bit smaller.
Lone stars in the second life phase, the nymphs, are similar but about half the size of adults. Like adults they have eight legs upon which they walk around, setting up ambushes where they wait in a bid to board an animal from which they hope to suck up a blood meal.
Ticks need a single blood meal at each stage of life to enable them to molt to the next phase. The goal is to reach adulthood, mate and for the females to lay eggs. The result is the huge hatch that’s about to occur. In summer, the fruits of lone star tick mating are realized with scads of new, six-legged larvae.
These kid ticks are berated as deer ticks, seed ticks or even turkey mites. They are, in fact, juvenile lone star ticks that may spill out of egg clusters by the hundreds.
Lone star larvae, too, hit the ground running in search of just one adequate blood meal to allow them to molt and grow to the larger nymph stage.
Most people don’t know lone stars when they see them. Well, they hardly see the tiny bloodsuckers. A lone star tick is typically smaller than the head of a pin, about the size of a period in this type face. There.
That’s the insidious thing about lone star larval ticks. If you brush against a wrong bush or weed where hundreds of them hatched on the ground and then climbed up to “quest” for a passing blood donor, it’s possible to let several dozen to hitch a ride on you at once and never know it.
The larval lurkers — “deer ticks” if you must — aren’t likely to impart a disease to you. Later phases of lone stars could infect you with southern rash-associated tick illness (STARI) or trigger an allergy to red meat. The larvae, however, typically transmit no diseases. Just misery.
(Authorities say adult lone star ticks don’t transmit the potentially more serious Lyme disease. That’s associated with black-legged ticks, the real deer ticks, that aren’t known to be in our region.)
Lone star larvae, maybe 30 or 40 of them, will grab onto you if you walk by their ambush position and make contact. They’re so small, it’s common that a human host will not see them. Undeterred, they’ll march up a leg or whatever they can seize until they find a spot they like.
There, the tiny ticks will attach, sinking their mouthparts into skin, injecting a bit of anti-coagulant fluid in their slobber, then sucking out enough blood to fuel a change in life — molting into a nymphal stage tick.
Usually, a tick that attaches and ingests blood will leave an itchy, red bump that rises up at the bite. The scratching that probably follows may dislodge the tiny arachnid, but the itchy damage is likely done. Like a chigger bite, a larval tick bite might linger and torment a human victim in itchy fashion for a week or two.
And if you err and brush against vegetation where newly hatched lone star larvae lurk, the chance of getting dozens of bites from one ill-fated contact raises the possibility maddening discomfort.
Take great pains to avoid a fateful misstep by using insect repellent in tick-rich habitats. Repellents based on DEET or picaridin are good. Even better is to dose your clothing with a permethrin-based spray, then use a conventional repellent on your exposed skin.
Larval lone star ticks aren’t likely to doom you. But if a swarm of the practically invisible invaders munch on your body, you might wish someone would put you out of your misery.
Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors editor, can be contacted at email@example.com.