Willy's got a Rider
by Will Meister


"Molly's got a rider," he said, "and Larry doesn't like that." William Gibson, Neuromancer

Tick crawling on leg

Come to that, Willy doesn't like it much, either. Freeloaders of all kinds are objectionable, but the various members of genus Ixodes, the hard and soft ticks, are surely among the least welcome. Unhappily, if you are an offroad rider who frequents grassy or woody areas, there is every chance that you will encounter these obnoxious creatures.

Now, I must admit to a failure of editorial objectivity here. On 1/8 or 3/32, I'm agnostic. On 26" vs. 700c, I'm professionally detached. But when we're talking about bugs crawling up my trouserleg in search of blood, I lose it completely.

It's my bad luck therefore that 63xc.com's base of operations on the South Downs is basically Tick Central. Over the last few years, my forays into the surrounding fields and woods have given me a closer acquaintance with the little devils than I ever wanted. I've cursed, scratched, dug, sprayed and tweaked, picking up advice wherever I could, becoming in the process something of an expert. The following is a distillate of what I've learned, with due credit, I hope, to various people who have helped me. I hope that it helps you too.

Know thine enemy

The various species which make up the Ixodoidea live by sucking the blood of mammals, birds, and occasionally reptiles. Like the spiders and mites to which they are related, they emerge from the egg tiny but fully formed. Confusingly, many start off on six legs, but the basic body plan is a spider-like eight-legged affair.

On hatching, the rookie tick makes its way up a grass stalk or other tall vegetation and waits for something warm-blooded. When it detects a suitable victim, the tick clambers aboard, makes its way to a place where the skin is thin, and jabs its mouthparts into the host's body. If left undisturbed, it will feed continuously, gradually swelling with blood. When fully engorged it detaches from the host and falls to the ground, where in due course it will moult, emerging as a new and larger ticklet to repeat the entire process.

The number of iterations varies between species, but the basic pattern is usually the same: the tick feeds, falls off, moults and comes back bigger, winding up up as a sexually mature adult capable of reproducing and starting the cycle over again.

My source for the useful if skin-crawling information above was Anne Baker, a biologist working with the Natural History Museum in London. 'Know thine enemy' is a great proverb and Anne's account presents tick-haters with two useful pieces of info.

The first is that tick infestation is unlikely. Unlike spiders, ticks are not fully adapted to dry conditions, so they prefer to moult amid humid undergrowth. There's therefore little chance of ticks breeding successfully in your house and necessitating calls to the fumigator. (If you have a spouse, this news will likely cheer them no end.)

The second is that the tick's multi-stage lifestory makes it an extremely effective disease vector. Since a tick transfers blood between all the hosts it has bitten on its way to maturity, a tickbite is like Forrest Gump's chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.

Nasty, nasty, very very nasty

According to Wikipedia, ticks are second only to mosquitoes in the transmission of disease, being responsible for the spread of 'relapsing fever, Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia, equine encephalitis, Colorado tick fever, and several forms of ehrlichiosis' besides 'livestock and pet diseases, including babesiosis, anaplasmosis and cytauxzoonosis.' Sheesh!

Reaching for the medical dictionary? It shouldn't be necessary. In practice ticks become strongly associated with particular host species. As a result of this selectivity, most world regions have developed one or two major tick-borne diseases as specialités de la maison. On Australia's east coast, it's tick typhus. Western Europe has Lyme disease. Eastern Europe and Russia have tick-borne encephalitis or TBE (although TBE is spreading steadily west). In the US and Canada it's Lyme disease again, plus the even nastier Rocky Mountain spotted fever. There are some regional variants, too.

Since this is an article about ticks, not viruses, I'm not going into detail about symptoms or treatments. If you're out in the woods and fields, you should research the local tick-borne disease(s) and make appropriate plans, including briefing your doctor and vaccination where applicable. In my case, for instance, I'm alert for the symptoms of Lyme disease. No vaccine is yet available, but I've got a sympathetic GP to arrange an end-of-season blood test in case I'm among the minority who don't develop a rash but go straight into the spirochetes-eating-your-synovial-membranes phase.


But, of course, it's a lot better not to have to bother medical staff, and that means not getting bitten.

The best way of avoiding bites is not to go where the ticks are. Become a roadie! (Ha! Joking.) You might also consider becoming a winter specialist: according to Ms. Baker, ticks in the temperate regions tend to be three-season creatures, dormant in winter. However, most of us will reach peak activity at about the same time as the ticks. That being the case, avoidance requires thought.

For a start, you should cover up. However, while impermeable clothes help, they aren't a definitive solution. This is because, unlike a mosquito, an incoming tick doesn't dig in on the first patch of bare skin it sees. Instead, it will crawl away from the point of first contact, wandering perhaps for hours. (On one memorable occasion I was settling down with a beer and the late movie when a huge specimen walked casually onto the back of my hand, having been at large under my clothes since the morning's gardening.)

Some responses from the 63xc.com mailing list may help here. Alan Ritchie and Robert Hamlin are both biologists with field study experience, so they should be listened to. Alan wears two pairs of socks, one under and one over the end of his trousers or tights, the reasoning being that bugs have trouble negotiating the complex junction. (This worked for me.) Robert sticks a cuff of double-sided tape around his calf to trap ticks as they make their way upwards. (I'd try it if my legs weren't so hairy.) All parties recommend washing clothes after every ride to flush out lurkers.

I don't like pesticides, but many of the pros I interviewed recommended using a DEET-based repellent. DEET is a supposedly non-toxic insecticide manufactured by Morflex, Inc and used by suppliers worldwide. More in the sidebar.

You should also pay attention to the places you ride. Minimise your contact with brush and tall vegetation, since those are the sites where ticks wait for a ride. Try to stay on the bike as much as possible. An adventitious tick might manage to scale up your boot, but it will have a hard time negotiating your wheels. And, when you stop, don't sit on a fallen tree -- dead wood is a preferred tick breeding spot.


But what if a tick gets through?

Removal is easy enough, and, unless you're totally freaked out, you should be able to handle it yourself. The most important point is: the sooner the better. The longer a tick remains attached, the harder it is to remove. Besides, there is good evidence to suggest that disease transmission gets more likely as the feed progresses.

However, you don't want to scratch the tick off with your fingers. A traumatised tick tends to vomit its meal into the host, increasing the risk of infection. (Sorry for sharing that.) Also, a botched removal is likely to leave the creature's head stuck under your skin -- objectively no worse than a splinter, but unpleasant for you and likely to create a small abscess. Better to take it slowly.

A common preliminary is to paint the tick with nail varnish, thus blocking the pores in its skin and suffocating it. Medics dispute the effectiveness of this technique, and it is in any case messy and awkward. My own experience is that a good blast of cheap perfume is a much more convenient way of loosening up a tick, although it may be hard to explain down the pub.

Now, choose your weapon. The O'Tom company makes a dedicated tickhook (see sidebar). This has good writeups but I haven't used it. In practice, you're likely to end up working with whatever is available in the way of forceps or tweezers. Surgical forceps with their large, serrated contact areas give a good grip, but tend to squeeze the tick's stomach with predictable results. I prefer a well-shaped pair of tweezers with a distinct jaw, sharp enough to clamp the tick's front end but not to cut the head from the body.

Look at how the tick is shaped. Most species are flattened horizontally, like a turtle. Grip the tick appropriately, and pull it upwards, a little backwards, and out. Use a steady pull, not a jerk. If you do it right, the tick will still be alive on removal, so you might want to spend a few moments finishing it off before disposal. (If you're in an area with really nasty tick-borne diseases, you can instead keep it alive for tests -- put it in a jar with some blades of grass.)

Next, check where the tick was attached. If it's clean, great -- just disinfect and you're on your way. If you can see some of the head or mouthparts left in the wound, it's worth going after them with the tweezers, just in case they can be gripped and removed.

Keep 'em peeled

Finally, don't forget to monitor the wound site. If necessary, draw a biro circle. Take any rashes or discolorations to your doctor. Ditto unexpected fevers or headaches.

Better safe than sorry!

Will Meister is feeling a bit itchy, now.

v1.0 written July 2006

Thumbs up to TickAlert in the UK and its Oz cousin. Here's an excellent regional US site, too.
The Wiki tick page has a lot of useful info.
There are company sites for DEET and for the O'Tom tick hook with supplier info.

63xc.com thanks
Anne Baker of the Natural History Museum; Claire Kembry and Sarah Hoyle also of the NHM; Lisa McGauley of TickAlert for support and pics; the entire 63xc.com mailing list but especially Alan Ritchie, Robert Hamlin, Steve Riley; the super helpful guy in Austria whose address I lost...

Mailing list
Join the 63xc.com list.