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Globe Magazine

9 myths about ticks and Lyme disease, debunked

Doozies, whoppers, and simple misunderstandings about these miniature menaces.

Deer shot on Nantucket in an attempt to lower tick populations. Adobe Stock

Myth: Lyme disease first appeared in Lyme, Connecticut, backyards in the 1970s.

Fact: A spirochete bacterium similar to the one that causes Lyme disease was found in a tick lodged in a 15 million-year-old piece of amber. In the mid-1970s, pediatricians diagnosed numerous cases of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis in Lyme, Connecticut. Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine determined the disease was transmitted by a tick-borne bacterium .

Myth: Deer ticks are the source of Lyme disease.

Fact: There is no such thing as a deer tick. In 1979, tick biologists thought they had discovered a new species, which they named Dammin’s Northeastern deer ixodid — “deer tick,” to the public. DNA testing later revealed that the arachnid was really a Northern form of the blacklegged tick. Unfortunately, like the creature itself, the name deer tick has been tough to unfasten.


Myth: Ticks get Lyme disease from deer.

Fact: Deer are a major food source for adult blacklegged ticks. But deer don’t pass on diseases to ticks. Instead, tick larvae are infected when they feed on small mammals, primarily white-footed field mice.

Myth: Culling deer is the answer to stemming Lyme disease.

Fact: How tick-borne illness spreads depends on the interplay of factors such as weather, levels of mouse-sustaining acorn yields, and predators for both mice and ticks. Reducing deer populations may not have the most impact.

Myth: Forests are the main habitat of blacklegged ticks.

Fact: Forests support healthy populations of white-footed mouse predators like hawks, owls, weasels, foxes, bobcats, and large snakes. An adult male timber rattlesnake eats enough mice to annually eliminate 6,000 blacklegged ticks, of which 1,000 to 2,800 are infected with Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. Suburban woodlots, on the other hand, are unlikely to support many mouse predators.

Myth: Vermont and New Hampshire are tick-free zones.


Fact: Blacklegged ticks were nearly unheard of there 40 years ago. Now, Vermont and New Hampshire are among the states with the highest per capita incidences of Lyme disease in the country. All six New England states usually rank in the top 10.

Myth: You’ll know if you’ve been bitten because you’ll find the tick attached to your skin.

Fact: No bigger than a poppy seed, a nymphal blacklegged tick can go unnoticed on our bodies. When you get home from a hike, cook your clothes in the drier for 10 minutes. Take a shower and scrub with a washcloth; nymphs swirl down the drain like so many flecks of dirt.

Myth: It is not possible to tell an adult tick from a small spider.

Fact: They both have eight legs, but ticks move like zombies: one speed, one direction. Spiders scurry and stop like windup toys.

Myth: Lyme disease came from an East Coast-based government bioweapon program.

Fact:B. burgdorferi has been coursing through North American forests for at least 60,000 years, according to biologists from the Yale School of Public Health. In 1969, before it was known to be tick-delivered, a case of what we now call Lyme disease was diagnosed in Wisconsin.

Ted Levin is a nature writer in Vermont. His most recent book is “America’s Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake.” Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

This story has been updated to reflect that ticks are arachnids.