A tick preserved in prehistoric amber. They've been around a long time, and they're not going anywhere. (Photo/George Poinar Jr., Oregon State University)
A tick preserved in prehistoric amber. They've been around a long time, and they're not going anywhere. (Photo/George Poinar Jr., Oregon State University)

As if Covid wasn’t enough, my new nightmare is ticks

The microscopic Covid-19 pathogen is often anthropomorphically illustrated as a fiendish ball with a destructive look on its face, studded all over with its characteristic protein spikes.

Vaccines may have that devilish molecule on the run, but it’s just one of several tiny terrors putting me on high alert this summer.

For a mom in this year of 2021 on the East Coast of the United States, my nightmares are populated by creatures smaller than the size of my thumb.

Topping the list is ticks.

My husband and I have already pulled at least half a dozen of the miniscule insects off of our children’s bodies, and it’s only June.

Scientists have predicted a banner year for ticks; the Weather Channel has dubbed it a “tick time bomb.” That’s largely due to warmer, wetter winters caused by climate change that facilitate tick development and are hospitable to the ticks’ hosts, like deer and mice.

The problem with ticks is that they can transmit disease, especially the blacklegged tick, which carries Lyme. Lyme is primarily a concern in the Northeast and Midwest, but Lyme-carrying ticks were recently found in the grasses around beaches in Northern California.

In Maine, where I reside, if you are experiencing any sort of lull in a conversation, it’s always a safe bet to start talking about ticks. These teeny, pernicious critters constitute an almost invisible health threat, and pretty much every human around here needs little coaxing to share Lyme horror stories and trade tips on their personal tick prevention measures.

In my home, our policies are regimented and practiced. My children wear special socks every day that have been treated with a chemical that deters ticks. Every six weeks, I spray everyone’s shoes with that chemical, permethrin, so that ticks lurking in tall grasses will not make the trip up our bodies.

Bare skin gets sprayed with bug repellent that contains DEET, and we always shower after hikes. And every night, we check everyone’s bodies and hair for those oh-so-hard-to-spot ticks, which is how we’ve caught the ones who’ve broken through the other defenses and hidden out in my kids’ hair and behind their ears.

Those we remove with tweezers and flush down the toilet.

It takes at least 24 hours for an attached tick to transmit Lyme disease, so in theory, catching ticks nightly should be effective.

If living through Covid taught me the importance of implementing layers of protection (masks, social distancing, hand-washing), I’ve brought that strategy to a new level of complexity when battling ticks.

Ticks are hard to spot, but the next critter on my hit list is easy to see. Browntail moth caterpillars look harmless and even kind of cute when you see them inching across fences and trees with two distinctive orange dots displayed on their backs.

But they are evil. This invasive species has exploded in population throughout Maine in the last few years, and they devour and destroy the trees in which they build their webs.

They’re a hazard for humans, too: their hairs are toxic and get distributed through the environment in dry leaves and grasses, where they can live for years. Contact with the hairs causes a bad rash and, sometimes, respiratory problems.


In some parts of the state, witch hazel, Benadryl and calamine lotion have disappeared from store shelves. At my son’s preschool, there were so many caterpillars in the trees that shade the yard this spring that they roped off part of the playground as a biohazard. Whenever they found a caterpillar, the teachers would put it in a large jar of soapy water to kill it; the jar quickly filled up. Perhaps a “guess the number of caterpillars in the jar” contest could have been a fundraiser.

I have no layers of defense strategy for the browntail moths, besides not touching them when I see them, because how can you ward off microscopic hairs that travel through the air? In discussing these environmental hazards with a friend recently, I opined that at least we didn’t have to worry about tornados. Now those would be scary.

Shortly after that conversation, I went to a river to go swimming with my husband and kids. They were already submerged and I was standing on the riverbank when someone pointed out to me the leeches clearly visible in the water.

Leeches. I have no words. All I can see is that I’m very proud of what I did next. After stopping to collect myself and think it over for a few minutes, I got in the water and went for a swim. And I added “leech check” to our regimen of health and safety protocols for summer.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.