The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Category Archives: Pets

Photo Friday – Deer Tick (Ixodes scapularis)

Lesson learned this week: people get really excited about parasites (holy page-hits, batman!!!) I’d already planned this post for today, but it fits nicely with the gross-out trend started on Wednesday.

A few days ago my wife was snuggling with Solomon, our fat, grouchy, old, outdoor boy-cat, when she felt a lump at the nape of his neck.  “Sol’s got a tick!” she announced. Ticks may not be as exotic as brain-bending beetle-banes, but they’re still pretty nasty (and therefore also cool).

I gleefully ran to get my tick tool, an ingenious little plastic do-dad that lets me literally twist a tenacious tick off the victim’s skin intact (leaving mouthparts embedded in skin can be bad news in terms of infection).  Fur was parted, tick scooped, twisted, and voila – off.

Usually Sol’s hitchhikers are common Dog Ticks (Dermacentor variabilis).  This one looked just a bit different.

tick 4_small

It is smaller than the ticks I usually see (this animal was about 6mm long), and the shape and color of the shield (the roundish area behind the head) were different. Also, see those super-long (creepy) palps?

After having done a bit of googling, I’m pretty sure that this is a Deer Tick (Ixodes scapularis), which is not particularly awesome, since they are known vectors of Lyme disease. The only other time I’ve seen this species was when I plucked a very tiny one off my wife’s leg after a walk in the woods. I brought it to our local health unit, and thankfully it tested negative.

A recent study of Deer Ticks collected from people’s pets in my home province (Ontario) showed that about 1 in 10 were infected with Borrelia burgdorferi , the bacteria actually responsible for the sometimes debilitating disease.

Results of tick-testing in Ontario, Canada, from 1993-2002

We live just to the east of that great big red circle by Kingston.  Although I am a teensy bit comforted by all the white dots closer to our area, I have to suspect that the range of Lyme-carriers has shifted eastward since these data were collected. (Eep.)

My wife’s reaction upon discovering this tick was, “Shouldn’t these be gone by now? It’s November!” While a lot of 6- and 8-legged critters are indeed out of commission for the winter by this time, mature Deer Ticks are most commonly found on pets in October and November. This is because the ticks are mostly in the larval stage during the warmest summer months of July-September. The larvae are incredibly tiny, not much bigger than the period at the end of this sentence, so they’re easily overlooked.

Although I’m not thrilled about having this species lurking around my home, I have to admit I was rather taken with one of its features. I didn’t notice this until I was processing my pictures:

Microsculpture of spiracle and side on Ixodes scapularis, the Deer tick

Mega-closeup of the tick's integument - cool!

This is an extreme closeup of a small area just above the spiracle (the little hole on its side through which oxygen enters its body). You can see what was turning my crank: the really cool sculpturing – all those little wavy lines on the upper regions, and the concentric circles around the spiracle. Sculpture (which is often visible to the naked eye), and even microsculpture (which usually requires a microscope to be seen), can be an incredibly useful tool when identifying insects to the species level.


Morshed MG, Scott JD, Fernando K, Geddes G, McNabb A, Mak S, & Durden LA (2006). Distribution and characterization of Borrelia burgdorferi isolates from Ixodes scapularis and presence in mammalian hosts in Ontario, Canada. Journal of medical entomology, 43 (4), 762-73 PMID: 16892637

Remembering Our Matriarch

Yesterday evening, at dusk, my wife and I drove west to the vet clinic in a nearby village.  I squinted my eyes against the light of the setting sun.  I knew that, before soothing darkness overtook the land, another bright light in our lives would also be winking out. 

Boo (August 1, 1992 - March 29, 2011)

Boo would have been 19 years old this August.  She was my wife’s steadfast companion throughout her entire adult life; I was privileged to share her for nearly 10 years.  She came home as a tiny, triangle-tailed barn kitten who would just as soon come at you sideways – all pointy paws and teeth – to grab your shins, as purr on your pillow at night.   

Boo was the matriarch of our household, and ruled firmly but fairly over her feline, canine and human subjects.  She taught our dogs manners.  She patiently tolerated the fawning affection and incessant grooming needs of our boy-cats.  A toddler’s over-exuberant fur-pull would be met with only a look of disdain and a flick of the tail as she sauntered off. 

She knew how to get THAT glass of water hand-delivered to her…no, not that one, THAT one (and filled to the top, please)…with nothing more than a chirp and a sideways glance. 

In her younger days, she was a mighty hunter who could take down a bird mid-flight faster than the human eye could process.  

Her face was capable of expressing a near-human range of emotions; you never had to guess how she was feeling.  In many ways, she was more human than some people I know.

She also had the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen.  Gazing into them was like gazing at an exotic, far-away galaxy, or at rare amber-coloured gems.

During her last few months with us, she never complained or lost her regal air, despite the arthritis that made her limp and the kidney disease that would eventually claim her life.

We’ll miss you, old girl.

Break Time

So much work, so little time.  My desk chair has been permanently stamped with the imprint of my rear. 

Either that, or my rear has assumed the shape of my desk chair.  Not very flattering either way if you ask me.

My wife called me today from work and suggested I take a break and play outside. It was a balmy -12C today (yes, that’s quite balmy after the near -40C we’ve had for the past two days), the dogs were short-circuitng from lack of exercise, and my wife is usually right about stuff anyways (don’t tell her I said that), so I went and played outside.

Although it was dark and grey, fresh snow was on the ground, and I got to try out my new toys:

That’s an old, shrubbed-over agricultural field.  There are squat stonerows  running along either side of the open area, and lots of early ii trees around the edges (birch especially) along with thick tangles of invasive buckthorn  native hawthorn (thanks for the clarification, Seabrooke!)

Evil Hawthorn...thorns.

Speaking of trees, and of bucks (aw nuts, now my nice little segue doesn’t work as well *harumph*),  I found a pretty recent deer rub on a young tree.  Bucks will rub their antlers on trees for a few reasons: in the early summer/late fall, they do it to slough off any velvet remaining on the rack; during rut, they rub to mark their territory.  If done aggressively enough, this action can kill the tree by cutting the flow of water and nutrients.

The small mugsly dog found something too:

C'mere, you wascally wabbit...

The occupant had left tracks nearby, but wisely stayed out of sight…

Ants do the “waggle dance” (or something!)

I was out in the yard with the dogs this afternoon, gazing at the wildflowers (weeds?  no, wildflowers) growing on the periphery of the property, along the fence line.  I spotted the white berries of a small red-twigged osier dogwood (Cornus sericea), but my eye was quickly drawn from the snowy fruit to the movement on the dark green leaves, many of which were oddly gnarled and curled.

Ants!  Lots of them!  Large black ones, but only partly black: the thorax was a deep shade of red.   The ants seemed to be moving over these deformed leaves and their accompanying stems rather randomly, and without purpose.  My first thought, given the numbers, was that they were tending aphid colonies, but no such colonies seemed to exist. 

Neither did they appear to be foraging or actively feeding; their random ramblings simply took them across a leaf, then over then under again.

Their mandibles were, for the most part, open and looking like they would be rather pinchy should they make contact with silly human fingertips (so I kept mine at a safe distance).

Then I noticed this weird (in my experience anyways) behaviour:

(Sorry about all the heavy breathing, but it’s not mine…the small mugsly one was waiting – rather impatiently I might add – for her next frisbee toss).

Anyways.  Did you see it?  Look at the ant on middle of the leaf in the centre of the shot at about 0:15 for a pretty good example…although there are at least a dozen or so examples of the behaviour in the clip.   It immediately brought to mind the “waggle dance” of their hymenopteran cousins, the bees.  I have never seen this before, and I can’t find any good information about it other than a vague reference to a chapter in a book about communication in social insects.  It seems to be a scraping-type of communication, where the tip of the abdomen is scraped on the substrate (in this case, the leaf) to create vibrations that can be picked up by other nearby ants. I have seen this in some caterpillars, but never in ants (if that’s even what it was).

Exactly WHAT these guys were trying to communicate, however, is beyond me.  I’m hoping someone who knows a little about ants and stuff (or anybody else for that matter) might be able to chime in on this one…because it was pretty wicked-cool to watch.


So I went out yesterday morning, while it was still cool, to have a closer look at the dogwood plant.  The ants were nowhere to be seen…until I started to handle the gnarled leaves.  Then they emerged from within the protective coils and folds – cold, slow and sleepy – but armed with open mandibles at at the ready.  I tapped one leaf sharply to dislodge the ants, then quickly plucked it from the stem.  There had to be something more to this story…and there was:

Hidden on the underside of the leaf were numerous teeny-tiny aphids.  Ah-ha!  So now I understand the ants’ presence as well as their roamings over the leaves.  I still am unsure how to interpret their communications, however.  A few of my ideas: a “call to arms”, summoning other ants to a protective position in response to my presence and pokings; a friendly  “hey, there’s some decent food over here”; or something being said to the aphids themselves perhaps?  Something to stimulate their feeding and subsequent secretion of delectable honeydew?  The plot thickens….


My fave antologist, Alex Wild, has provided some excellent information on both the identity and behaviour of these ants:

I can’t say I know for sure what the ants are doing. But I can tell you who they are: Camponotus noveboracensis, a carpenter ant species found in north temperate/boreal habitats across the northern tier of our continent.

Carpenter ants can communicate through substrate vibrations. One thing they do is spread an alarm signal by drumming their heads against the ground. They also do a simple vibration-type dance to recruit nestmates to food. You could be seeing either of both of those behaviors here.

A Very Nice Day

That’s just what it was.  Blue skies, comfortably warm, a nice breeze, and the paper birch leaves have popped, providing a lovely pale green backdrop to the day.  No bug pics today, just me and my canine crew enjoying our favourite walkabout passtimes:

The small mugsly dog found a deer bone (OMNOMNOM).

The three-legged one found a mud puddle.  And another. And another.  Aaaaaaand another.  (This is the same dog who screams bloody murder when I give her a bath).

All done!

The yellow one and I enjoy the same activity: Poking Around And Checking Stuff Out And Possibly Getting Dirty.

(That’s her.)

(This is me.  The OTHER yellow one.  Ha.)

Yep, a Very Nice Day, indeed.  Bugs tomorrow (promise).

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