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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Wet springs cause many issues across Kentucky, nuisance chiggers are one

Wet springs cause all sorts of issues in rural and suburban Kentucky — delays in the plantings of farm crops and vegetable gardens, and the muddying up of creeks and rivers, that frustrates anglers.

Heavy rains and warming temperatures cause the grass to grow insanely fast, making it a real chore just keeping up all that string trimming, and the mowing of grass in yards and fields.

But the cruelest curse of the wet spring is a bumper crop of chiggers, whose bite causes itching so intense it can keep you up at night.

Chiggers are in the same scientific class as ticks, Arachnida, and are nearly microscopic (Image courtesy of USDA)

Chiggers are most numerous in late spring and early summer when grass, weeds, and other vegetation is tall and lush.

Chiggers thrive in low, damp areas, especially along streams, and forest edges, but chiggers aren’t just found in wild country. Walk off a hiking trail at a park, or go searching for a golf ball hit out of bounds, might put you in chigger territory.

In wet springs chiggers are so numerous it’s easy to pick up these nasty arachnids just walking through the yard, if the grass is over the ankles.

Chiggers are mites, members of family Trombiculidae.

The most notorious species of chigger in the U.S. is the hard-biting Trombicula alfreddugesi, found throughout the Southeastern U.S., and humid Midwest.

Chigger Life Cycle

Chiggers are in the same scientific class as ticks, Arachnida, and are nearly microscopic, measuring about 1/60 of an inch long, with an orange-reddish hue.

Chiggers pierce the skin of their host with their chelicerae (mouthpart), and injects digestive enzymes that break down skin cells, and form a hardened tube, called a stylostome, which they use to feed on the decomposed tissue (Image by Wikipedia Commons)

Their life cycle includes egg, larvae, nymph and adult. It’s the larval stage, the only parasitic stage of the mite’s life cycle, that’s responsible for all the intense itching and discomfort to humans.

But humans aren’t the only host. The six-legged parasitic larvae also feed on small mammals, toads, box turtles, quail, even some insects.

Their modus operandi seems like some Medieval torture.

After crawling onto their host, they pierce the skin with their chelicerae (mouthpart), and inject digestive enzymes that break down skin cells, and form a hardened tube, called a stylostome, which they use to feed on the decomposed tissue.

The severe itching is accompanied by red, pimple-like bumps. The itching starts after the larvae detach from the skin, usually within 24 hours.

Chiggers tend to attach where clothing has restrictions, such as belt lines, inner thighs, or buttocks, or behind the knees when wearing tight-fitting long pants.

After feeding on their hosts, the larvae drop to the ground and become nymphs, then mature into adults, which have eight legs and are harmless to humans.

In the postlarval stage they feed on plant material. The females lay three to eight eggs in a clutch, usually on a leaf or under the roots of a plant, and die by autumn.

Treating Chigger Bites / Avoiding Exposure

Secondary bacterial infections may result if the “itchy welts” caused by chiggers are scratched (Image by Wikipedia Commons)

Wounds caused by chiggers are a combination of the injected enzymes and resulting mechanical damage, plus allergy and immune responses. Secondary bacterial infections may result if the “itchy welts” are scratched.

The intense itching can be alleviated through the use of over-the-counter ointments of benzocaine, hydrocortisone, or calamine lotion. Hot showers or baths also help reduce suffering.

Normally, chigger bites heal within one to two weeks.

To minimize exposure to chiggers, apply insect repellant before each trip afield.

After working outside, launder your work clothes in hot, soapy water, and take a hot shower, soaping repeatedly.

Don’t get “bit.” Chiggers are no fun.

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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