Chiggers

It takes high magnification for the chigger — a larval harvest mite — to be seen, but it can make itself felt easily enough.

Most of us have never seen a chigger, but, alas, we have seen the results of their labors.

The chigger is an arachnid of sorts. It is a mite, a harvest mite, and quite specifically the larval form of this species. You never hear anything much about nymph or adult harvest mites because they have nothing to do with people. They are no problem.

Adult harvest mites are tiny, but they are large enough to at least be visible. Their larvae offspring, the chiggers, are so minute as to be effectively invisible. They play much larger, however.

Chiggers prey on people for food. They “bite” us, so to speak, leaving tormentingly itchy red welts that can last for days.

It is easier for a chigger to slip up on us because we can’t see them coming. Actually, it is the other way around. The chigger posts up on a blade of grass and waits to ambush us when we come along and brush against his habitat.

We don’t see it where it is positioned to bushwhack us, however, because the red-orange, six-legged chigger is only about 1/120th of an inch long. And that is a big one.

If you walk through tall grass or weeds, you run significant risk of contact one or more chiggers, because there are many out there. Swish against one of these waiting juvenile mites with clothing or a bare leg or ankle and it will grab onto the passing meal, you.

Over a period of time, the chigger parades up your body and instinctively seeks a place where the skin is a little thinner or where there is a cozy compression of clothing over skin, like around the waistline. They can end up on ankles under socks or anywhere north around legs, butt, crotch or even upper torso like under the armpits.

A chigger does not burrow into your skin as so many people believe. What it does is chew a hole in the skin and inject a slobbery enzyme. This pre-digests skin cells, and the chigger can feed by slurping up the liquified cells through the hole.

The red, swollen welt that rises around where the chigger feeds is what we call the bite. The chigger cutting into the skin is not felt, but the enzyme that the mite pumps into us is the real problem. It typically itches like crazy.

A chigger freshly on board the human body might be two or three hours in finding a feeding spot. Once there, it may spend several hours to a day or more punching a hole, dissolving cells with enzyme and sucking up the resulting human soup.

After that, the chigger can drop off and go about transforming to the nymph stage of life, nevermore needing a sip of melted flesh.

The human is left with the bite spot, which can swell, discolor and begin to itch within three to six hours of injection. The itching is usually worst within the first couple of days, but the welt and some discomfort may endure for a couple of weeks.

People wonder about how to deal with chigger bites, often resorting to such folklore remedies as dabbing bites with nail polish to dry and smother the chigger that they imagine is burrowed into their skin. In fact, the chigger that punched the feeding hole was never dug into the human hide, and most often when a human begins to itch maddeningly at a bite, the responsible chigger already has dropped off and gone.

Rather than resort to some of the folksy remedies, itchy bites are better treated with over-the-counter corticosteroid creams, calamine lotion or oral antihistamines like Benadryl. Other than those, it is pretty much grin and bear it. Too much scratching can result in more damage than the chigger did, scarring and even chance of infection.

On the plus side, chiggers do not transmit diseases like their ugly cousins, the ticks, can.

Time is short for the chiggers to get you this year, however. Their thermal apocalypse is coming soon.

Adult harvest mites drop and dig into earth and leaf litter by the time frosty weather ensues in the fall. They overwinter lying low, then emerge in the spring and lay eggs to start a fresh crop of the larval chiggers.

The mites caught at the larval stage right now, however, are in harm’s way. They typically die when the temperature drops below 42 degrees. That could come within a matter of days or a very few weeks at most, well before the first frost.

Still, people headed into chiggery habitat through early fall should be defended because ticks and mosquitoes will remain active after chiggers perish, and all these pestilent tormenters can be countered with the same stuff.

Insect repellents based on DEET or (better, methinks) picaridin will hold chiggers as well as ticks and mosquitoes at bay. Even superior protection is obtained by spraying clothing down with a permethrin repellent that stays effective for two to three weeks even through multiple launderings.

Treat your clothing with permethrin, then use a conventional repellent on your exposed skin and you will have the maximum functional shield in which to thrash around out in the bush and still be protected from hungry arachnids and insects.

Some of the worst itching you risk is from chiggers, presently making their last stand.

Try not to feed them before they go.