On January 11th as I woke I found myself picking at something on the inside of my arm, just below my wrist. It was tiny—almost like a scab. Jan took off her glasses and peered at it. “I think it’s a tick!” No, that’s not possible. So I checked it with my hand lens. It was a tick–a deer tick!
My female Deer Tick (Ixodes scapularis) (c) Bill Beatty
Some may wonder why would I be excited enough to write about a tick. Considering that my career has been 100% nature-related – 18 years as a full-time naturalist at Oglebay Institute’s Brooks Nature Center and then 17 years freelancing as a nature photographer/teacher–one would think I would be familiar with ticks. Well, I’ve seen them, identified them, photographed them and even extracted them, but this is the first tick I have ever had embedded in ME. I can remember just two others on the surface of my skin and several more on a pants leg. No one I know has spent more time than I have lying in grassy meadows (sometimes for hours) or hiking through grassy areas. My routine during warm weather months used to be that I was outside before sunrise and did not return home until about 3 PM. If I didn’t shoot at least 3 rolls of film in those 8 hours I felt like I hadn’t done anything. Upon arriving home I changed clothes, cut up half a watermelon, found a book, and lay in the hammock to read and rehydrate myself. I never checked for ticks. Years before I had learned that ticks apparently didn’t like me and I was happy about that considering all the time I spent outside in tick territory.
When my son was young I would take him fishing at a nearby lake. Much of the time we hiked the shoreline casting here and there or we sat in one location waiting for a fish to pull on the line. Some of our time was always spent picking ticks from his pants legs–at times there were many. I never had any, ever. So I never felt the need to check for them on me. A friend once suggested that, since I shave my head, ticks would climb to the top of my head and, finding nowhere to hide, they would jump off to the ground. Interesting theory, but I’m pretty sure that isn’t the case. Most likely it’s a body chemistry thing considering that I never use repellents.
So, here I was, in bed, with a deer tick feeding on my body fluids and hoping to remain there long enough to engorge herself and nourish her eggs.
My female Deer Tick (Ixodes scapularis) feeding on my body fluids. (c) Bill Beatty
Considering the stories about the ravages of Lyme disease, the first thing most people would want to do is to get that dreaded thing out as quickly and carefully as possible. But MY first thought was, “I need photos of this!” It took some time to change from my standard 28-85mm lens to my 50mm with all the extension tubes and a ring-flash. Finally it was time for the photos. I sat on the floor and held the camera with my left hand. Since this was an extreme close-up, “in” or “out” of focus was just a matter of about 1-2 mm but I was able to focus by resting the camera against my right arm and leaning slightly nearer to or away from the tick. Jan pulled on the skin of my arm to get more of a side view of the creature. But, wait a minute–not so fast. Because the tick was embedded near my right wrist I had no way to push the shutter button on the right side of the camera. It’s nice to have a willing helper. In a whisper, so I wouldn’t move and lose focus, I said, “Okay.” Jan reached around and carefully pressed the shutter release button. I checked the photo and set it up again and again. Someone coming into the room would have thought we were engaged in that old game “Twister”. Actually “twister” was even more true later.
We took lots of photos–some are seen here to illustrate this story. When we had taken a number of really good ones, we also decided to get some shots of our “Tick-twister” holding the tick. Jan had decided to get some of these for us earlier this fall after reading about them. These tick extractors come in a pack of two tiny plastic crowbar-looking tools.
This was the first time we ever had the opportunity to use our Tick-twisters. Jan and I were amazed at how fast and efficient this tiny crowbar was. Once hooked around the tick’s body, it did not fall off, even during numerous photos.
Tick twisters…two sizes…the Deer Ticks take the smaller size (c) Bill Beatty
When the photos were done, a couple of twists and the tick came out easily, head and all. (Jan says to beware of cheap imitations—she bought the exact one described in the article last fall.)
Hook and twist (c) Bill Beatty
The general consensus is that a tick has to embed for at least 24 hours before there is a danger of Lyme disease. I hope that’s true since I know the tick wasn’t there when I went to bed the night before. Fortunately this tick looked to be in the “unfed” stage based on medical charts like the one pictured in the post. And, yes, we both checked ourselves carefully for other unwanted attachments.
(c) University of Rhode Island…TickEncounter Resource Center
Not only was this tick surprising since it was my first ever, it was especially unexpected since it is early January and, even though we have had some milder temperatures than a typical winter, there have been some cold days far below freezing. One would think that ticks wouldn’t be out and active at a time like this. So now we know that anyone chasing birds, taking photos or hiking this time of year still has to check carefully when they come back inside and even remember to check the next day. Even someone who has been tick-resistant. That’s the tick—et!