Thursday Nonfiction

TICK TALK

I am watching a seconds-long QuickTime video on the internet of a female deer tick. It looks kind of drunk as it walks, waving its front legs around over its head while trying to maintain forward progression with the others. I imagine that this flailing behavior has something to do with sense, feeling for the proper air, processing its aroma. Since the tick does not have antennae or noses, there must be scent glands in these flailing little legs. But to me, the bug looks like it has no idea where it’s going or what it’s even doing here. In fact, I think that most insects look that way.

I live an indoor life. I don’t like the creepy crawly things. My experience with ticks has thankfully been brief and inconsequential. I walked on a thickly wooded road around Dahlgren, Virginia in the middle of summer several years ago. When I went to relax on the bed in a well-lit room, I felt something crawling up my arm. It looked like a spider with a mission. But when I tried to squish it, it barely noticed. I ended up rinsing it down the drain, only later realizing that this had been a tick. I still have not discovered exactly what species.

It was dark brown, almost black and kind of speckled with a lighter color on its back. Its legs were stubby, and I must have practically walked on top of the little thing for it to have gotten enough of a grip on my clothes. I wasn’t afraid of it because I considered it to be a harmless thing. Like almost any spider you would find in your home. That was until I realized what the tick is capable of.

It’s not even the possibility of disease that disturbs me. It is the act. The burrowing, the sucking, the taking without permission of the blood I use in order to live and maintain my own daily functioning. Being a city girl, I am not accustomed to so many of Nature’s parasites. Give me a codependent friend, a mooching sibling, a telemarketer, and I know what to do. Distance. Therapy. Listen for the click and hang up before there’s time to get in a word. Give me a spider bite in my very own sheets, and I am left baffled for days. And although I can handle the mosquitoes, I haven’t ever trusted them. When I look at the tick, I am not sure what to think.

First, an egg. Then, a larva. A nymph. A tough-crusted adult. A larva, nymph and adult bloodsucker. A head like a fishhook does not allow for easy removal once it pierces the skin. The tick takes its time sucking. The blood can be sucked for days, in varying degrees. When it has embedded its head into a suitable host, the tick does the most vigorous blood sucking at night, when the animal is at rest, perhaps less likely to feel the effects. The tick rests when its host is alert. An infestation of ticks can suck a shared host dry in virtually no time at all.

Ticks mate while still somehow attached to their host, before they finish their business and detach. I find it difficult to picture this scenario. Does the male approach the female while her head remains tucked beneath the layer of skin? Does she continue feeding even as he couples with her? Do they plan it out beforehand? Stand so close to each other that when they bite the proper organs connect and they both continue to feed? Researchers gloss over this part, or perhaps I just haven’t found the articles that explore this detail. All I know is that when the female is properly engorged with blood to many times her initial size (the ratio depends on the species of tick), as well as properly fertilized, she drops from her host to lay her eggs on the ground. And the cycle starts over again.

A larval tick has six legs. After it has been alive for a little while and has fed on its first host, it molts and finds itself with eight. This is another detail about the life of a tick that I haven’t found very much research on. Most articles and dictionary entries mention the appearance of these extra appendages like it’s no big deal, despite their apparent importance. A tick seeks its host through an action called “questing,” where it climbs a blade of glass and extends its front legs. And although I have no confirmation, I think that it must be the “extra” two legs that the tick puts to this use. Because what would be the purpose of getting more legs just like the rest when it has already been living for some time? The seventh and eighth leg must do more than provide the same balance and support as the other six. Otherwise, I would think that the larva would have all eight of its legs upon hatching. The tick has to work for these special legs. It has to bite, suck, detach and molt. The questing legs must be earned.

As an adult, the tick can climb blades of grass around three feet high. They do not drop from trees, or jump, but rather, they cling to their grasses with a couple of legs outstretched, and they wait. An adult tick can go without finding a host for up to three years. In cold weather, it finds a sheltered spot, hides under snow and frozen grass, and somehow manages to ignore its hunger and keep on waiting, to climb in the grass when the warmer weather returns. The legs hang out there, tasting the air, sniffing for signs of carbon dioxide and other chemicals that signal “mammal.” These legs tell them where to climb, which blade of grass will give them the best chance to catch a bite. And when a suitable animal passes by close enough, it picks up the tick like it might a dandelion seed or a burr.

It seems so elegant, the tick clinging to its blade of grass, reaching, waiting, almost like a fairy tale for the rescue, the happily ever after. The host comes along, Prince Charming, and provides everything that was lacking before. Unfortunately for those of us non-insects living just outside the enchanted forest, we can’t just sit around waiting for good things to come. This is called laziness when observed in human behavior. And even a happy ever after ending for the tick might mean Lyme Disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, paralysis, and other not-so-happy situations for their unfortunate hosts.

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