For a female tick, fall is the last best chance to be in prime egg-laying condition for next spring.
To successfully reproduce, the female tick needs a male tick to fertilize her eggs, a full meal of blood and a spot under the leaf litter to spend the winter in a dormant state, according to one of Maine’s top tick experts.
“By now the tick will be looking for her final host for that blood meal” before winter arrives, said Griffin Dill, manager of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension tick lab. “She needs to have that blood protein and have found a mate when she drops off that host in November.”
The result of this dormant state can be quite startling, because the female tick can survive the entire winter without a host. There are examples of people placing ticks in jars for weeks, or even months, only to see the insect suddenly start to lay eggs after all that time, Dill said.
“We see this sometimes in our [tick] submission process,” Dill said. “Someone finds an engorged tick and have put it in their refrigerator or wrap it in a damp paper towel for a period of time and by the time it gets to our lab, it’s laying eggs.”
The final fall host a tick chooses depends on the species of tick. The Lyme disease-carrying black legged ticks feed on large forest mammals such as deer, moose, raccoons or foxes and are often referred to as deer ticks. Another common Maine tick, the dog tick, prefers medium-sized hosts such as dogs, foxes, racoons or skunks.
Both tick species are common in Maine.
Typically the female ticks lay several hundred eggs in a small cluster or mass, but Dill said they can lay up to 2,000.
Egg-laying is the final stage of a female tick’s life and she will die soon after.
Despite that large number, Dill said it is highly unlikely an individual will see a mass while walking in the Maine woods.
“The chances of stumbling across an egg mass are very slim,” he said. “Even with 2,000 eggs in a mass they are quite small and will be hidden in the leaf litter.”