The life of a tick is subtly different, depending on the species, but they generally have a lifespan of around three years, assuming that they get the nourishment that they need throughout the four stages of their life cycle. So, how long can a tick live without a host?
Ticks are what we call a three-host species, meaning that they need at least three hosts to complete their life cycle. Depending on what stage a tick is currently in, the species of the tick, and the circumstances, a tick can survive a single day or an entire season without a host.
It’s difficult to nail down the life span of a tick or how long it can live without blood because there are too many variables to know for sure. Circumstances such as environment, temperature, the last feeding time, and the tick species itself, alter the paradigm, making this species of arachnid unique and unpredictable.
How long is the tick life cycle?
Although some ticks can survive the lack of a host for extended periods, they must feed on a host to advance from one stage of their life cycle to the next. Without a host, they may survive for a time but they will never advance to the next stage of their development and will eventually die.
The average lifespan of a tick is usually anywhere between 2 and 3 years, but their stages can be all over the place, depending on whether or not they have secured a host for feeding.
The female lays eggs during the spring or early summer and she is capable of laying thousands of them. That may sound like something straight out of a horror movie, however, it’s not as bad when you consider the fact that most of these ticks will never find a host and will eventually die.
The eggs are a translucent brown and, even after the hell of birthing thousands of eggs, the female is still capable of efficiently hiding them, while the male runs off somewhere and dies a lonely death.
The larvae stage is when getting down to business means life or death. The larvae’s first and most important job is to locate a host and feed on its blood. This is when the life stages, advancement, or eventual death become of paramount importance.
If the larvae can latch on to some random, hapless deer, it will feast on its blood until it falls off, completely engorged and happy. Now that it is satiated and full of blood, it will enter into a molting stage and emerge as a nymph a few days later.
Failure to secure a host means either death is imminent, or the tick may burrow down under the foliage and enter what you might call a hibernation period, where it will remain until the next spring, before emerging once more to find a host.
Failure to do so a second time will most likely mean death. Surprisingly enough, this is the fate for most ticks, which is also the reason that the female lays so many eggs. The law of averages implies that if you fling enough mud at the ceiling, something will eventually stick.
Rinse and repeat. The nymph stage is just like the larvae stage, in that the tick must find a host to molt again and emerge as an adult. This usually happens in the fall or the late summer months but a nymph tick can remain active down in weather as cool as 35°F.
Like the larvae stage, the nymph needs to feed on a host for 4 or 5 days before it’s ready to molt again, emerging as a fully grown, adult tick.
The adult male tick mopes around until it can find a host, essentially doing nothing outside of that singular crusade. If it finds a host, it will latch on and gobble down all of that glorious hemoglobin before falling off again; this time, in search of a mate.
The adult male tick is absolutely useless, in terms of the reproductive circle of life, until after it’s had a good meal. Outside of the mating process, it’s the last happy thing a male tick will do, because after it mates, it dies.
Does the life cycle depend on the type of tick?
Much of it does, as not all ticks are created equal and there are five ticks within this branch of the arachnid classification. Regardless of what kind of ticks we’re talking about, the four stages remain the same, however, longevity is different.
Lone star tick
The Lone Star Tick is a pretty potent arachnid, with the female more than capable of laying 4,000 eggs per day. As if that’s not enough, the larvae that burst hungrily from these eggs can remain hungry, and survive, for ⅔ of a year.
Once they progress to the nymph stage, they can survive a staggering 470 days without sucking down a single drop of blood. As adults, the period that they can go without a meal is shortened somewhat, to 435 days.
If you add all of that together, the Lone Start Tick only has to get a bite to eat 3 times in a span of 3 and ¼ years. If that’s a little mind-boggling, it should be, as that is a testament to the resilience of this particular arachnid.
Blacklegged deer tick
Most people just refer to these as deer ticks, even though they have black legs and are only called Deer Ticks out of a “guilt by association” lifestyle, which means that they largely feed on unsuspecting deer.
Of the other five tick species, this one is the only one that has a legitimately red-looking body, with the black legs to which it owes its more uncommon moniker.
Deer Ticks aren’t as hardy as their Lone Star cousins and will assume room temperature within a single year if they don’t feed after emerging from their eggs. The nymph, however, has a little more durability than that.
A nymph Deer Tick can make it through to the second season if it doesn’t feed during the first, giving it a second chance to right its wrongs and jump onboard the bloodsucking bandwagon.
Once they become adults, it’s back to desperation time (insofar as the male is concerned), with less than a year to feed and mate before they take their final dirt nap.
Brown dog tick
The Brown Dog Tick isn’t the most awe-inspiring of names. Perhaps someone pulled a tick off of a brown dog one day and discovered a new tick species to add to the list
Regardless of how it received its name, Brown Dog Tick larvae are on the clock from the moment they hatch. They have to find a host and latch on within three months because that’s roughly the amount of time they have to live.
As an adult male, Brown Dog Ticks have a little more leeway, with a year and a half or so to catch their last meal before it’s time to start hunting down a female for mating season.
American dog tick
American Dog Ticks are the hardiest of the bunch, as they can survive for over a year and a half without a host, while still in their larvae stage. At the nymph stage, they can endure for just a little bit longer than they can as larvae.
As an adult, they can survive well over a thousand days without any blood. That’s a long time to go without a meal but these are some seriously resilient arachnids and they manage to pull it off.
Rocky mountain wood tick
The Rocky Mountain Wood Tick females, like their Lone Star Tick cousins, lay up to 4,000 eggs that hatch anywhere between a week and a month. Most of these newborn ticks will die within a month if they fail to find a host, however, some are a little more resilient, lasting up to 100 days.
Once they make it past that short-term scare, they’re in safer territory. Molting into the nymph stage comes with some added longevity benefits, which means they have around 300 days to find themselves a host to snack on.
Adult Rocky Mountain Wood Ticks double that amount for up to 600 days without a host to feed on. All male ticks, regardless of the type of tick, reach the end of their road after mating with the female during their adult stage.
Females go on for a little longer, Rocky Mountain Wood Ticks included, but not by much, as the standard life span for all ticks is anywhere between 2 and 3 years.
The life stages and survival time for ticks who lack a host is inconstant at best. Even timing is problematic as a tick going into winter without having fed is much more vulnerable to dying than one that is heading into the summer months.
No matter the species, timeframes, environment, or circumstances, a tick who makes it through to the end will only ever survive for a maximum of three years. If nothing else, that estimate is closer to the mark than anything else.