Tiny oak mites will take a bite out of your walk or ride, but there’s hope

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They’re everywhere, these tiny mighty little critters. Some 45,000 species by last count, and jus one can give the best a bad name. And while most of them won’t routinely bite you, oak leaf gall itch mites and a few others will. Actually, they’re looking for food – fly and wasp larvae are favorites.

Right now, Ozarkers are feeling their itchy bites, sometimes by the dozens, after a  morning bike ride or evening walk, typically on the face and upper body. In a year when mosquitos seem to be everywhere, you might think some invisible ‘skeeter was having it’s way with you.

Graphic shows how oak mites attack galls on oak trees in search of food. Sometimes they drop onto humans and inject a neurotoxin meant for fly larvae.

Graphic shows how oak mites attack galls on oak trees in search of food. Sometimes they drop onto humans and inject a neurotoxin meant for fly larvae.

You may be right, of course, but you can see mosquitos, and their bites swell, form a red welt and itch immediately. The bite of the Mighty Oak Leaf Gall Itch Mite feels similar to poison ivy rash, with an intense itching and a welt the size of a quarter. The difference is that mite bights don’t spread with itching; poison ivy does. Except that the usual remedies for poison ivy (we’ve posted Kelly McGowan’s take on poison ivy in her Garden Organic column in the upcoming Ozarks Living Magazine.).

Although some victims so traditional calamine lotion and other treatments aren’t working, try Claritin to treat the bites because it only requires one dose a day and doesn’t cause drowsiness, as opposed to Benadryl, which is taken every four hours and causes drowsiness in many people. Here’s another tip: Absorbing Jr. is a well-known remedy for instant relief for bites, and contains 1.27 percent natural menthol. Other common ingredients include calendula extract, echinacea extract, absinthium oil, acetone, chloroxylenol, iodine, wormwood extract, potassium iodide, thymol and water. It’s been around for more than a century.

Actually, this is a good teaching moment. You see, there’s whole ‘nother tiny world out there right under our noses and we know little about it. Spend even a few hours outside where you can observe, or go on a bike ride right now, and you’re likely to discover this world. Even as I write this on my laptop in the “outer office” on the patio, tiny bugs are all around. You just don’t notice until one crawls across a computer screen, or is drawn to a solar panel by the hundreds.

Oak mites, red mites, and even smaller critters too small to see, can cause you to itch and wonder how you missed a mosquito. The Missouri Department of Conservation says the oak mite is more likely to blame.

“They haven’t always been here in Missouri. We actually had our first reports of them in 2004,” said Cindy Garner, urban forester for the Missouri Department of Conservation. Back then, very little was known about them when they struck a community in northern Illinois, and that hasn’t improved a great deal except we know realize they’re on the move from west to east, so tiny they are easily windblown, even through the screened windows on you house and windows.

Recommendations for treat if you suffer from oak gall itch mites.

Recommendations for treat if you suffer from oak gall itch mites.

The female mite is armed with a neurotoxin in her saliva to paralyze their prey before feasting, on fly larvae and abnormal growths on oak trees called galls in search of fly larvae. The toxin causes intense itchiness in humans, usually forming a white pustule at its center.

The female oak mite drops off an oak trees when its food source runs out – sometimes accidentally fall on humans. The good news is the mites can’t live indoors because they need insect larvae to survive. An intrusive bug 1/125 of an inch in size, which enters abnormal growths on oak trees called galls in search of fly larvae, called midges, to eat, according to the Kansas State University research and extension.

Even better news is to change clothes after your ride or walk, and shower immediately. If not, the mites are a bit like chiggers. Their bite forms eight to 16 hours after the bite, too late by then, but not too late to take a preventative shower.

Foresters say there was an outbreak of oak mites in the Ozarks in 2005, a year after an outbreak in 2004 in Illinois. The mites feed on insect larvae laid on oak leaves, in marginal leaf galls, a hard swollen area on the edges of the leaves.

“They come from a mite that you can only see with a microscope. You will not see them flying around. You won’t know that they’re in the air,” says Garner.

While the bites really aren’t dangerous, the itching may be  truly irritating, and linger for five to eight days.

Only a few people in the country can identify a mite’s species, Arnold said. There are more than 45,000 different species of mites,

Only in a few rare cases has a person been hospitalized from the bites and there is no known instance of death from itch mite bites, according to the release.

It is only necessary to see your doctor if the bites become infected, indicated by a rise in temperature, pus and red streaks on your arms going towards the chest.

George Freeman is a veteran journalist and photographer. An award-winning writer, editor and columnist in Springfield, Mo., with more than 50 years experience. His preference is for positive and uplifting stories about people, places, traditions and trends that make the Ozarks one of the most livable regions anywhere. A member of the Garden Writers Association of America, he is a past-president of the Society of Professional Journalists of Southwest Missouri, the Kansas and Ohio AP societies; a board member of Friends of the Garden and a member of the Rotary Club of Springfield. In 1976, he traveled to India as a member of a Rotary Foundation Group Study Exchange Team.

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