It’s hard to predict how our extremely mild weather this will impact both plants and insects this year.  Early spring flowering plants have started to blossom, bees and some butterflies are active, ants are starting their forays and unfortunately the deer ticks are out in force and are voracious.

Warm weather is a boon to cold-blooded ticks; their metabolism varies based on the temperature. Blacklegged ticks or deer ticks are among the first species of ticks to emerge in the spring. These are the ticks that can transmit Lyme disease, and they emerge once the temperature is consistently reaches the upper thirties.

Deer ticks, generally take three blood meals over their two-year lifespan. An adult female tick lays about 3,000 eggs in the spring. The larvae hatch in the summer and are disease free until they feed on an infected animal.   Their first blood meal is often from a mouse and this meal lasts them through the winter.   They awaken in the spring as nymphs, the size of poppy seeds and at this stage they prefer to feed on deer, mice and small mammals, but a human will suffice.  They are most active in May and June. Historically, 95 percent of new cases of Lyme disease are reported during this period when ticks due to their small size are hard to spot.

Disease ecologist Richard S. Ostfeld has studied the life cycle of ticks at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Dutchess County, New York for over 20 years. He agrees that the 2012 tick season will be a bad one, but he said weather isn’t the cause. Instead, he blames the white-footed mouse and the acorns they devour.

This is what his research shows and his predictions for this year:

A bumper crop of acorns in 2010 led to a surge in the population (largest surge in 20 years) of white-footed mice in 2011.Deer Ticks     Scale in Centimeters

The abundant mice fed a thriving generation of young ticks.

When the baby ticks hatched in 2011, they had an abundance of mice to feed on.

But this spring, the massive legion of larval ticks will awaken to a different world because the  2011 acorn crop failed and the mice population crashed.

This will make matters worse,” Ostfeld said. “Those infected nymphs are more likely to crawl on us because there won’t be all those little mice vacuum cleaners sucking them up.”

“The mild winter doesn’t change the number of ticks out there, but it does affect their behavior, he said. Ticks wake up when the temperature reaches the upper 30s, so the early warm-up means that adult ticks who failed to find their final blood meal last fall are already on the prowl for a host right now.”

Some good news Ostfeld predicts that the declining mouse population means this year’s batch of baby ticks will struggle to find their first meal.

“They may die off and 2013 may be a better year,” he said.