At my job, I have the honor of holding a record of some distinction. This record has not been broken in the three years since it was set; no co-worker has even come close. At least twice a year, I get to retell the story of how I achieved it to new employees as part of their required safety training. I set this record in the same way I’ve earned most things like this – I fell into it.
One day in July of 2018, I was helping with some light clearing work on the back side of a laboratory building. I was dragging brush back into the woods (planning to let nature deal with it because I didn’t want to haul it all the way back up to the truck). The job had only taken a few hours, and we were just about finished up.
On one of the final trips past the tree line, I walked out on what I thought was solid ground. Instead, it was just an older brush pile someone else had also decided to let nature deal with. I was immediately up past my waist in pieces of beech, bush honeysuckle and sycamore.
Whatever, that’s not a problem. Just laugh it off and keep going. Didn’t twist an ankle or anything, so that’s good. Finish and clean up the site. Get back to the office. Eat some chili for lunch. Waste some time playing games on my phone. Wonder why there’s a poppy seed moving on my arm. Make sure the timecard is up to date. Wonder again why that poppy seed is moving. Uh-oh.
Mid-summer is typically when deer-tick larvae turn into nymphs. What you may not know is they sometimes stay clustered together for a little while. It’s important to learn something new every day.
So, instead of making one or two new acquaintances that afternoon, I got to make 75. Time to take a sick day.
How do I know it was 75? Because I counted each and every one of them as I pulled them off with teeny-tiny blue tweezers and tossed them into my toilet. My 3-year-old son was recruited to do the job of holding up a camping lamp while daddy tried to find all his “little friends.” (This is what I called them instead of explaining what they were actually doing to me. No sense in giving the kid nightmares for the next few days/his entire life.)
A few things helped me avoid what should have been a guaranteed trip down Lyme Disease Lane. First, these were brand-new nymphs, so they probably had not found their first blood meal until I decided to drop in. Ticks need to feed on a mouse or some other rodent to pick up the Borellia bacteria before they start transmitting it to humans.
Second – and this one is real fun – is that I’m allergic to their saliva. We all get our own superpowers in life, and mine is that I can always, always feel when a tick is biting me. All 75 at the same time.
So there’s something to be said for not laughing at the guy who tucks his pants into his knee-high socks before hiking – and don’t forget your Permethrin!
End note: I joined another happy little day camp of deer ticks in 2020. I wasn’t even out in the woods that time, just working around some crape myrtles in front of an office building. Only 28 latched onto me that go-round, so that was like taking a little vacation or something.
Richard Jones, an ISA Board Certified Master Arborist, is the campus arborist for the University of Maryland, College Park, and one of the founders of Maryland Sustainable Ecologies, a company that provides tree care training to municipalities and nonprofits.