At one time or another, we’ve all probably come into contact with ticks. These tiny little creatures that bite into our skin and suck on our blood are often part of repulsive childhood memories where our parents combed through our hair and poked at us with tweezers and needles trying to remove them. Because of their ability to carry and transmit diseases to both humans and animals, it’s important to identify and remove them as soon as possible.
What are Ticks?
Ticks are actually small arachnids of an order known as parasitiformes. They are ectoparasites, meaning they are external parasites. They survive through hematophagy, which basically means that they feed on the blood of other animals. They most often attack mammals and birds, but are sometimes also found on reptiles and amphibians. They are known to transmit a number of diseases that can affect both humans and other animals.
How to Identify Ticks
Ticks can vary in color depending on their exact species. In their natural state, they are generally a bit smaller than a sunflower seed and are normally a red, gray or black color. When they have been feeding and are engorged with blood they can be up to one centimeter in length and usually take on a light grayish color. Tick larvae are usually only one millimeter or even smaller. Larvae (the smallest stage) have six legs, while nymphs and adults have eight.
The most common problem ticks are the American dog tick, the deer tick (also called a black legged tick) and the lone star tick. They are often found in wooded areas or in places with dense vegetation. Some species also require moisture to survive. Each species of tick has a preferred host — the deer tick, for example, gets its name because it prefers deer — but most will feed on whatever type of blood is available to them.
The Life Cycle of Ticks
Ticks hatch from eggs and go through three primary stages of development: larva, nymph and adult. Adult female ticks will lay eggs on the ground in the spring season. Later in the summer, with exact time determined by temperature and moisture, the eggs will hatch into larvae. The larvae will look for and attach to their first host. They will feed on the blood of the host for several days before detaching and falling back to the ground. In the ground, the larvae will molt into their next stage of life, the nymph.
Tick nymphs will remain inactive over the winter and begin looking to feed again in the spring. Basically following the same process as the larvae, the nymph will locate a second host, attach and feed for several days, and then detach and fall back to the ground. Well fed again, the nymph will go through it’s final molt to reach the adult stage.
Throughout the fall season, both male and female adults will look for their third host where they will feed and mate. When this has been completed, both will leave their host and return to the ground once again. At this point the male tick will die, while the female lives on through the winter to lay her eggs in the spring, starting the cycle again. The full life cycle of the tick from egg to death is two to three years.
Signs of a Tick Infestation
There really is no sign of a tick problem other than the presence of the ticks themselves. They are generally found in homes as the result of being transported in on people, pets or other pests that might make suitable hosts for the ticks, such as rodents.
You may spot them moving across carpet or furniture, but they are so small that they aren’t often discovered until they’ve attached to a host and begun feeding. If you live in an area where ticks are common, it’s highly recommended that you check both family members and pets regularly.