deer tick, maryland
An engorged adult female deer tick. From NIAID via Flickr

The more I learn about ticks, the more afraid I am to head into the woods before the first good freeze. And the less concerned I am about year-to-year forecasts about whether there are more ticks than last year or less. All it takes is one bite to change your life, and it ain’t for the good.

You can’t give in, of course. But I now believe that anyone who doesn’t take the following precautions is an…I think the technical term is idiot.

• Treat your duds with permethrin.

• Use insect repellent on exposed skin (the consensus seems to be that it doesn’t stop them but will at least slow them down).

• Check yourself thoroughly before showering. (If you’re single, this often means unflattering views of your body, such as as you straddle a mirror on your bathroom floor. Does it beat contracting Lyme and other diseases? Hell yes.)

I’ve had at least half a dozen friends get serious cases of tick-borne diseases. One makes regular trips from Montreal to D.C. and pays a specialist out of his own pocket to treat the chronic Lyme he’s had for 15 years and still insists he got while fishing with me. Another has nerve damage, chronic fatigue, and has found that any food with gluten puts him in bed for two days. Another has recurring bouts of an inability to metabolize red meat. And that boy loves him some barbecue.

There’s a fairly terrifying video below featuring a student doing two experiments with biologist Grant Woods. For the first, the student walks for 15 minutes at the pace of a browsing deer making its way through a low field of prime Ozark browse. He collects ticks wearing a white painter’s suit and pulls them off that with a piece of tape. The tape is then taken back to a lab, where other students count 156 ticks. That’s more than 10 per minute. And remember, this isn’t the pace of a hunter on his way to or from his stand. It’s just a deer feeding along slowly. You or I would have probably have picked up many more ticks covering more ground at a brisker pace in that time.

The second experiment involves putting a piece of dry ice in a plastic container on a white sheet on the ground in a closed-canopy forest. Dry ice emits carbon dioxide, the same stuff we exhale, and it’s what ticks and other pests home in on to locate a nice blood meal. Leaf beds on shady forest floors are cooler and more humid than other areas in the heat of summer. In 15 minutes, the dry ice trap—remember, it’s not moving, just attracting ticks by carbon dioxide—nails a whopping 243 ticks. One takeaway from this is not to take a nap in forest floor leaves, especially in a bathing suit.

I’m not advocating staying out of the woods. But as tick populations generally are on the rise and as new and deadlier tick-borne diseases get discovered all the time, we’ve never had to be more careful.

Hey, I need all the readers I can get.