The online forum Reddit is infamous for some foul-minded communities, but earlier this month somebody posted a photo to its New Hampshire section that shook even hardened online veterans to the core.
What was this appalling sight? It was a toilet seat in an outhouse; a nice clean one, mind you, except for one thing.
It was covered with ticks.
Dozens of the eight-legged monsters were crawling all over the white plastic, seeking a warm-blooded victim. It was impossible not to see this picture and imagine what it would be like to sit down and then realize – well, you get the idea.
Not only were people appalled at the picture, it triggered a stream of comments telling others how their dog or their cat or their pants had become covered with ticks after only a short time outside. The consensus was clear: Ticks are much worse than ever!
“They’ve been horrible. Pulled a giant one off of my dog. Pretty much every time I go outside, I need to check myself,” said Concord High senior Chad Rochette, questioned while fishing at White Park.
I’ve heard the same thing from friends and seen it on other social media sites but I’m a little dubious, partly from experience.
Every year I hear from readers that some insect or another is either overtaking the world or has disappeared completely, and sometimes both at once. It’s not uncommon for Reader A to ask why there aren’t any ladybugs around anymore (or dragonflies, or aphids, or whatever) even as Reader B asks why swarms of them are invading her house and garden.
It’s possible that the pandemic shutdown means people are outside more and going to places they normally didn’t go. Maybe we’re all just encountering tick populations that were always there.
How to know? Here we run up against a common problem in conservation: No baseline data.
Collecting ticks is easy. Drag a white sheet through a grassy field at the right time of year and you’ll have more than you can deal with. But counting all the ticks in a given area is pretty much impossible, and determining population densities over a region or over the course of the year is doubly impossible.
So I went to the only possible source: BeBop Labs in Plymouth.
I’ve written about this project in the past. It was started by biologist Kaitlyn Morse, Ph.D., to plug a hole about tick data north of Concord but has expanded both geographically and in scope, working toward predictive models of tick threat.
A key component of BeBop Labs is citizen science input; Morse makes it easy for people to report tick findings and to send them in to get analysis for species and for the diseases they’re carrying. It’s not a comprehensive statewide survey but it’s the best we’ve got.
What has BeBop Labs seen so far this year? Not an unusual number, Morse said, but an unusual distribution.
“So far we have seen a huge amount of American Dog ticks (Dermacentor variabilis), and they started really early as compared to previous years. … We got them in early April and usually don’t see them coming in until later in May. We have seen Ixodes scapularis blacklegged tick too, but their numbers appear to be consistent.”
Dog ticks are much bigger and easier to spot than deer ticks so their early emergence would explain all the anecdotal reports.
I didn’t use to worry much about dog ticks, since deer ticks are the ones that carry Lyme and associated diseases. But in other parts of the country, American dog ticks carry tulerimea and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, both of which are moving north and are becoming part of New Hampshire’s health scene. Then there’s a third species, the Lone Star tick. It didn’t used to be here at all but is starting to show up, partly because it likes the wild turkeys that have returned to our woods. It carries more than one nasty disease.
What this means, unfortunately, is that this isn’t a bad year for ticks – it is what has become a normal year for ticks.
Overall, our weather is getting warmer and wetter, our winters are getting shorter and the number of days with snow cover is shrinking. All those changes make an environment that is more suitable to ticks, which don’t like it too dry or too cold.
Just as New Hampshire has become a land with poison ivy and opossums, neither of which were here in any number when Baby Boomers were young, we’re now a land with ticks wherever the snow is melting if the air temperature is above 40 degrees.
I almost never wear shorts outside – lightweight long pants are the norm tucked into socks if I’m going to walk through tall grass. It’s a pain but such is life, right?
Black flies are a pain, too, but New Hampshire has learned to cope with them. We can learn to cope with ticks.
Just as long as they stay off the toilet seat.