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The North American Chigger
by Keith A. "Bootlegger" Williams
If you have ever spent much time in the outside in the Southern United States, then chances are good that you have had at least one encounter with the Chigger. There is probably not a lot of new information that I can give to my fellow wanderers of wild places, but perhaps this may be of some interest to anyone new to the Great Outdoors, and yet to experience this often unseen and misrepresented little creature.
Technically know as Chiggers, (but more often referred to in the South as “Red Bugs”) these bothersome little pests have sometimes been a downside to outdoor activities for people of all walks of life for centuries. Though one might have only experienced one encounter with them, it is hard to imagine another animal that can cause so much discomfort for its size. The experience can be monumental enough that they may very well shy away from any activity that may hold potential for a reunion.
Despite the name redbug, they are not actually true bugs at all, but rather are a specific family of mites called Trombiculidae. They are a type of arachnid, like spiders and ticks. Chiggers range from dark yellow to bright red in color, and are covered in tiny hairs. Since they are only about 1/5th the size of a period at the end of a typed sentence, they are difficult to see with the naked eye, and it is pretty much impossible to make out any details without a magnifying glass.
The life cycle of these mites start off as eggs, and proceed to larva, nymph, and adult. Females become active in the spring when the soil temperatures are above sixty degrees Farenheight, and may lay as many as fifteen eggs each day. The length of incubation can vary on the environment, but eggs generally hatch about a week later and show the emergence of a pre-larval stage that is only equipped with three pairs of legs. They will eventually gain an additional pair.
In another six days before these to grow into larval stage. Like many mites, this is the only stage in their lives at which they are parasitic and they will climb onto nearby grass, twigs, and other vegetation to begin their search for a host. They are quite sensitive to movement and are quick to pick up any newcomer to their area. After feeding, which can require several days, larvae drop off the host and transform into eight-legged nymphs and live in the soil. At this stage, they soon mature into full adulthood they primarily feed on vegetation, as well as the eggs of mosquitoes and other small insects.
Chiggers don't really bite, but rather attach by inserting their minute specialized mouth parts called chelicerae into skin depressions, usually around skin pores or hair follicles. Popular areas of attachment include the crotch, armpit, belt line, ankles, and other similar areas that have not been toughened by prolonged exposure to the elements. Within a group of people in the same area, women and children tend to receive a higher percentage of affected areas due to their softer skin.
Once attached, the chigger injects saliva into its victim. This saliva contains a powerful digestive enzyme that literally dissolves the skin cells it contacts. It is this liquefied tissue that provides nourishment for the chigger. Since the actual attachment does not cause any irritation, the chigger can feed in this manner, unnoticed and undisturbed for several hours before being detected. Eventually however, the skin reacts adversely to the saliva and the skin surrounding it will harden to form what is essentially a tube called a stylostome which actually assists the chigger in further feeding. This tube is rigid and its presence causes the surrounding skin to get inflamed, and it is this which causes the itching with which we are so familiar.
If left undisturbed, a chigger can take several days to finish feeding. A chigger cannot differentiate one warm body from another, though ideally their preferred hosts are lizards, turtles, birds, and small mammals. It is unfortunate for any chigger which picks a human to feed on because we are not actually their intended prey, as human skin reacts badly to their saliva. The itching that results from this inflammation frequently results in them being dislodged before they can complete their meal. Any chigger that gets dislodged prematurely will unintentionally have its mouthparts damaged and will be unable to bite another host and will die before completing its life cycle. It is interesting to note that there are other types of chiggers inhabiting Asia and other parts of the world that specifically target humans and therefore have saliva that doesn’t affect our bodies in this manner.
Chiggers tend to congregate in spots that are suitable to them, with other nearby areas being completely devoid of them altogether. They have long legs which enable them to contact and move all over the host’s body very rapidly. Although they are small enough to fit between most clothing fibers, they tend to stay on the surface of clothing until moving to the skin at natural openings. Due to their small size, several hundred may occupy a relatively small location, and so it is not unusual to have many of them swarm onto the host in a small timeframe. Chiggers are most active in the hours after dawn and before dusk when the temperatures are in their preferred range, and may be more prevalent during periods of higher humidity. When faced with long dry spells, forest fires, or other hazardous conditions, they simply burrow into the soil and wait for conditions to improve.
Chiggers prefer shady, moist areas with taller vegetation to live in. Therefore the most effective method to keep their populations low in a given area is to keep the weeds, underbrush, and overhanging limbs closely trimmed. This will allow more sunlight and wind currents to flow through the area which leads to drier conditions. For areas around your house, dusting the grounds with powdered sulphur is very effective. It is commonly available at garden centers and is a time-proven Chigger deterrent.
It is possible to dust your clothes with sulphur as well, providing you are not allergic to it, but sulphur has a pungent smell that could be offensive to anyone nearby. When traveling through areas of potentially high inhabitation, tuck your pant legs inside boots or socks and button shirt collars and cuffs as much as possible. Standard mosquito repellents will repel chiggers but are only effective for a couple of hours without re-application and are less effective when mixed with perspiration. Periodic rubbing of the skin and clothing with a cloth is enough to kill many chiggers as their delicate bodies do not stand up well to any rough treatment at all, but removal and washing of contaminated clothing and a good bath with warm, soapy water is the most effective treatment for post-chigger exposure.
Although the same cannot be said for some other countries, we are fortunate in the United States, because our chiggers are not known to carry any diseases, and are only a nuisance instead of being a health risk. The best cure for the inflammation is time itself, as the chigger is long gone and scratching the site will do nothing at all for the affected area. Scratching will only cause further irritation and may risk a secondary infection from bacteria under the fingernails.
In conclusion, I hope that this little information may help to make life a little more enjoyable in the outdoors without having to end in fits of itching and scratching. Don’t be afraid to get out there and enjoy the experience, but just remember that sometimes the little things can make all the difference.
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