Beware the Questing Tick!

May is Lyme Awareness month. And it is indeed time to be aware. Thanks to El Niño, it’s a wetter Spring than we’ve had in several years. That means we have lots of green grass, damp leaf litter, and overgrown trails and paths. It also means the ticks are out. And early spring means nymph season — these nymphs are young ticks, not much bigger than a poppy seed … the kind that are easy to miss with a quick glance.

Anna Perez This photograph depicts a deer tick, or blacklegged tick, Ixodes scapularis, as it was questing on a blade of grass.The Lyme disease bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi, is spread through the bite of infected ticks. The blacklegged tick (or deer tick, Ixodes scapularis) spreads the disease in the northeastern, mid-Atlantic, and north-central United States, and the western blacklegged tick, Ixodes pacificus, spreads the disease on the Pacific Coast. Ticks can attach to any part of the human body but are often found in hard-to-see areas such as the groin, armpits, and scalp. In most cases, the tick must be attached for 36-48 hours or more before the Lyme disease bacterium can be transmitted.Most humans are infected through the bites of immature ticks called nymphs. Nymphs are tiny (less than 2mm) and difficult to see; they feed during the spring and summer months. Adult ticks can also transmit Lyme disease bacteria, but they are much larger and may be more likely to be discovered and removed before they have had time to transmit the bacteria. Adult Ixodes ticks are most active during the cooler months of the year.
Adult Ixodes tick questing. Photo by Anna Perez, courtesy of CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

The good news is that ticks can’t fly, jump, or even run. But they do “quest” — they hang out on leaves, blades of grass, and branches, tiny legs poised to grab onto a warm body passing by. Ticks need to feed in order to progress to the next life stage and perching ready to grab a free ride (and meal!) on an unwitting passerby is how they ensure their survival.

When hiking or biking in the woods, if you keep to the center of the trail and avoid bushwhacking and brushing up against high grasses or other vegetation, your risk of picking up a parasitic passenger is pretty low. Once you leave the trail for a pit stop, however, the risk rises exponentially. Ticks are carried by deer and other small mammals that also like to use the trails so the highest concentration of ticks is often close to trails.