The mere thought of ticks makes our skin crawl. These vile little creatures transmit diseases such as Lyme, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and the rare (but disconcertingly quaintly named) Heartland virus. Symptoms of tick-borne illnesses can range from swollen joints to meat allergies. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of reported cases of Lyme disease has tripled since the 1990s, and there are about 50,000 cases of tick-borne illnesses diagnosed every year. Lyme, which is the most prevalent tick-borne disease in the US, is potentially debilitating and can be difficult to diagnose—just ask the trifecta of pop stars, Justin Bieber, Avril Lavigne, and Shania Twain, all of whom are Canadians living in the US (weird!) who have dealt with the aftereffects of undiagnosed Lyme.
No one really knows if there are more ticks this year than in previous years, but theories regarding their increase—from climate change to the abundance of acorns last year—abound. In the Northeast there have been two consecutive years of high crops of acorns from red oaks. “The rodents that eat acorns (e.g., white-footed mice, chipmunks, and gray squirrels) have been celebrating by making lots more rodents. These rodents are ideal hosts for the ticks that carry Borrelia, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. So, more acorns = more rodents = more ticks = more tick-human encounters, and more exposure of humans to tick-borne diseases,” said Matthew Ayres, professor of biological sciences at Dartmouth, in an email interview.