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Chiggers & No-See-Ums; Summer's Invisible Pests


Q. I recently noticed a lot of moving, red dots on my stone patio. I am told they are chiggers that will burrow into humans and animals. How do I get rid of them?
    ---Arlene in Hampton, NJ
Last year, our three children had a horrid time with chiggers in our yard. Are there organic solutions? I have heard that nematodes work on chiggers; is this true? Thanks!
    ---Michelle in the Indianapolis area
A friend recently heard you warn against the use of insect repellents containing "DEET". My summer place has lots of jiggers and the first thing I do when I get out of my car is spray my legs with "Off" for protection. What can I use that's safer?
    ---Andrew in Kellogg (about 45 miles West of Des Moines in central Iowa)
A. "Chiggers" are pestiferous little arachnids whose other common names include 'red bug' and 'harvest mite'. But there are also pests called "Jiggers", explains a great reference book, the "National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Insects and Spiders of North America" (Sterling; 2007) by entomologist Arthur Evans. (Normal people carry Jackie Collins or John Grisham around for summertime reading; geek boy here hits the beach with books like this to keep his parasite knowledge up to date.)

The Field Guide explains that "jiggers" are strictly Southern pests. Insects as opposed to arachnids, they are a type of sand flea that gravitates to bare toes and feet. So I'm guessing that Andrew actually has chiggers. He is not better off. As the Ohio State University Extension Bulletin on these creatures begins, "probably no creature on earth can cause as much torment for its size than the tiny chigger."

That torment is not caused by the adult mites that Arlene in New Jersey may have seen. If those are chiggers at her place (there are other red mites, some of which are valuable predators of pest insects), they'd be just about visible at around 1/16th of an inch in size. The troublesome babies that actually cause the dreaded itch are invisible to our eyes at a VERY mere 1/150th of an inch long. They lurk in weedy, brushy areas, and when they prey upon a human, they head for 'constricted areas', like the waistband of underwear, armpits, and yes, those other places you're thinking of right now. They aren't bloodsuckers, but the irritants they inject into the skin drive people crazy with itching.

If you think you may been exposed to the little pests, don't wait to find out—immediately take a hot bath, which will kill them before you start to itch. Wash your clothes in hot water too. And avoid that specific area if you can; experts say that they often congregate in high numbers in little 'mite islands', and often aren't a problem just a few feet away.

Beneficial nematodes might work, as the tiny biters breed right at or below the soil line, much like the flea larva nematodes have been shown to control. So go ahead and give them a try. And keep wet, brushy areas (that's the habitat they prefer) cut and dry.

When you're doing something like hiking, fishing, bird watching or berry picking (all prime chigger chances, we are told), apply a chemical-free insect repellant like "Bite Blocker" (which Gardens Alive sells as "Sting Free") before you go into the woods. Or consider wearing clothes that you've treated with a .5% permethrin spray. Typically sold for tick control, you spray it on your clothes, not your skin, and it protects you from chiggers, ticks, mosquitoes, no-see-ums and many other biting pests. One spray is said to last at least two weeks, and maybe as long as six weeks—even with repeated washings.

You'll find .5% permethrin pump-spray and aerosol products from Coulston, Sawyer and Repel in stores that sell camping and hunting supplies; brand names include "Duranon" and "Permanone". And, of course, you can order them online; hey what CAN'T you order online these days?! (Warning: A lot of similar products contain higher concentrations of permethrin and/or other chemicals, including the useless but toxic DEET. So stick with those two brand names AND read labels carefully. Don't buy anything with DEET in it!)

Organic disclaimer: Yes, permethrin is a synthetic chemical. And no, I typically do not ever say 'yes' to those kinds of things. In fact, this specific one for this specific use is just about the only one I do recommend. Why?

   1) We're spraying it on clothing, not into the environment, so it won't harm any creatures other than nasty bloodsuckers that try and attack you.
   2) I'm a realist. I know that if I don't offer an alternative, people will slather on the DEET, which does NOT protect against ticks (it may even attract them), and is absorbed directly into your bloodstream. Nasty, nasty stuff.

So whatever you do, don't use DEET! Or did I say that already?

Q. Starting about the middle of July, my wife experiences what seem to be bites on exposed skin areas. Can't see what's biting her, just the aftermath. Could these be some kind of biting mites? If so, is there something we can spray around the house, as she is very averse to applying anything to her skin. (She's a little stubborn.) Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance,
    ---Larry in SW Ohio
What is the safest way to get rid of "no-see-ums"? These insects seem to be congregating at the sliding glass door to my balcony. I can't use the screens for fresh air because these little bugs get in through the screens. Thank you,
    ---Kathleen in McLean, VA
A. Kathleen has almost certainly correctly identified her pest. At 1/16th of an inch in size, the biting midges known as 'punkies' or no-see-ums can pass through regular size window screening. They're worst near salt marshes and other coastal areas, but can show up just about anywhere in North America.

When they're coming indoors, the best solution is to replace your regular '16 mesh' screens with special, tighter woven ones. A well directed fan can also help keep them on the outside, and they are said to be helpless in rooms with ceiling fans.

Females do all the biting, drawing blood to lay their eggs, just like mosquitoes. And you pretty much control these pests outdoors the same way as you do mosquitoes:

  • Drain any wet areas around your home they could use to breed. Air conditioner run-off is said to be a big one; and check those gutters!
  • Use BTI granules or dunks to safely prevent breeding in ponds or wet areas you can't drain.
  • And maybe get a Mosquito Magnet or similar carbon dioxide trap; many experts feel that such traps work better on these little midges than they do on mosquitoes!

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