Ticks: A Biology Lesson and Bite Prevention – Foundry Outdoors
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Ticks: A Biology Lesson and Bite Prevention

Ticks: they’re a hot topic, and for good reason. If you spend much time in the outdoors, chances are that you will have a tick encounter. If you’re like me and seem to be a tick magnet… lots of tick encounters. You can check yourself for ticks after being in the woods, pull them off with tweezers, and get rid of them. But there’s more to the story than that; the ecological impact of ticks is complex and interesting. The more you know about this acarid’s biology, the better prepared you will be to protect yourself from tick exposure and potential illness.

Geography and Diversity

The first thing to know about ticks is that there are hundreds of species worldwide. Many of these species specialize on other animals, such as birds or bats, and will never bother you. In North America, there is a small number of species that will bite humans opportunistically, but mainly utilize a mammalian host to complete their life cycles.

The second thing to know about ticks is that when it comes to biting humans, not all species behave the same. The Lone Star tick, Amblyomma americanum, is a highly aggressive tick and all life stages bite people. On the other hand, the dog tick Dermacentor variabilis can be found on humans but the younger life stages are much less likely to latch on than Lone Star tick larvae are. There are also genetic differences within species across a geographical range when it comes to behavior. Nymph deer ticks (Ixodes scapularis) are very aggressive toward humans across the northern part of the range, but in the south they don’t bit people as much as their northern counterparts.

To truly understand the tick situation in your area, take a look at some range maps of the various species of ticks in the US. The CDC provides maps of species distribution. Because each species is so unique in its behavior and most importantly, the pathogens it carries, it’s important to know who you’re dealing with when it comes to ticks. For example, while the deer tick can transmit Lyme Disease-causing microbes to humans, dog ticks and Lone Star ticks do not. Those species, however, are associated with another group of disease-causing microbes such as Rickettsia, the genus that causes Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.

Life Cycles

All ticks have a three-stage life cycle, and therefore have three different sizes. In order to molt and grow into the next stage of the life cycle, a tick must have a blood meal. After mating, Mama Tick lays a cluster of eggs, which hatch into tiny larval ticks. These ticks only have six legs and can be hard to see because they’re so small. If you’ve ever encountered “seed ticks”, you know the discomfort of having dozens of nearly-invisible ticks crawling and biting you. Late summer and early fall is prime time for Lone Star tick larvae to hatch and begin seeking a blood meal.

After its first blood meal, the larval tick molts into an eight-legged nymph. These medium sized ticks are still small, but can pose a major threat as far as disease transmission goes. Deer ticks, the species that carries the Lyme Disease-causing pathogen Borrelia burgdorferi, hatch pathogen-free. If the larval tick feeds on a mammal infected with B. burgdorferi, the nymph stage of that individual can now potentially transmit the bacteria to its next host. Deer tick larvae are so small that they can be difficult to notice right away compared to infected adults. This is why nymphs can potentially have a major impact when it comes to tick-borne illnesses.

After a blood meal as a nymph, the adult tick finds a third host to feed on and find a mate, eventually laying eggs and starting the life cycle over again.

Behavior and Habitat

Ticks live in grass and vegetation that is low to the ground, preferably in areas frequented by potential wildlife hosts. A tick will exhibit a behavior called “questing”, where it sits on a piece of vegetation and holds its front legs in the air, waiting for an unsuspecting passerby. If the tick comes into contact with a human, it will crawl upward until it locates a suitable area to begin feeding—often around waistbands or other protected areas. A tick bite is painless when it occurs, but can become irritated later on.

Nymph Lone Star tick on a drag cloth, a technique used by biologists to collect ticks for research

Preventing Tick Bites

In addition to the irritating, itchy bites, there is real risk of serious illness that can be transmitted through tick bites, not to mention the newly famous allergy to red meat that can be triggered by a tick bite. Preventing tick bites in the first place can reduce these risks of disease and discomfort. The chemical permethrin can be your best friend in the woods during tick season (which can be any time of the year—some seasons are just heavier certain life cycles). Permethrin is a chemical that when sprayed on clothing, repels ticks. I had treated my pants with permethrin and then walked through a cluster of larval ticks; all of them were dead on my pants without having traveled any further.

You can also purchase clothing that has been commercially pre-treated to repel ticks; DEET can also be helpful. To kill ticks on clothing, throw your clothes in a hot dryer for an hour when you get home, which will desiccate any surviving individuals.

Final Thoughts

I know the engorged, raisin-sized ticks you find on your dog look disgusting, but understanding tick biology can actually help point the way to answering some ecological questions. Changing tick populations are associated with larger things going on in the environment, such as forest fragmentation and migration of host species, not to mention human and wildlife health. Taking the time to understand the species in your area and the specific risks they pose can help you enjoy your time outdoors a little more!

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