Friday, June 4, 2010

Kansas Chiggers Take a Bite Out of Me

I began my study of Kansas entomology on a recent weekend as I attacked an area below my house with the weed whacker. The house I have leased sits on a lovely piece of land, heavily wooded with much of the front yard planted in ground cover and ivy. The basin below the house became overrun with weeds. I pay a fellow to mow the grass, since there is a bunch of it, but opted to do the trimming and weeding. There are a lot of flowers and lovely vegetation that might get beheaded by accident.

I enjoy getting out there and sweating, running the weed whacker and blower. It took most of the afternoon and filled up three large leaf bags, since it was the first time this spring any such work had been done. I rewarded myself with a cold beer and grilled some chicken outside when finished, eventually shedding my nasty clothes and cleaning up. I took my time in doing so.

I didn’t really notice the chigger bites for a day-and-a-half. It was only when getting ready to walk early Tuesday morning that I noticed my legs were itching. I bent down to inspect the situation. At first I thought I had contracted the annual case of poison ivy that has been a family tradition for a half-century.

But this was different. Both legs from ankles to knees were covered in hundreds of tiny bumps that itched rather insistently, with a burn that increased as hours, then days, passed. Why I hadn’t noticed this for 36 hours or so I can’t explain. Maybe Kansas chiggers have a delayed-reaction venom. Maybe I drank too much wine while watching the Celtics in the playoffs, after grilling that chicken. But now that I had noticed that my legs looked like an amateurish pointillist painting, of course I couldn’t keep my mind off those chigger bites.

I tried counting bites and gave up at 300. That was just on my left leg. It was a slow night. The Celtics weren’t playing, and there wasn’t anything worth watching on HGTV.

It has been many years since I have been a chigger victim. Not to denigrate Kansas chiggers, but they don’t pack the bite of their Texas cousins. I once hosted a catfish fry on a lovely hill under red-oak trees in San Augustine, (Texas) on some land I owned there — figuring it would provide shade from the wicked summer heat. I didn’t know that it was host to one of the greatest collections of East Texas chiggers that side of the nearby Sabine River.

My friends cussed me for weeks, because East Texas chiggers start biting within minutes, with considerably more venom than the Kansas version. There seem to be a lot fewer of them, and the pain doesn’t last as long, but they come spring-loaded on permanently teed-off. I haven’t been chigger-bitten since that fish fry, which was in 1985. You remember such events, when friends threaten to hunt you down with weapons because they are in such misery.

So I called Chuck Otte, the local extension agent, knowing that after nearly three decades here he would have plenty of advice on Kansas chiggers. He started chuckling in sympathy as I explained my plight. At the time, I was in Day Nine of itching. He said to figure on another five days more of irritation. Jeez. I’ve gotten over poison ivy in less time.

As I figured, none of the folk remedies work. Forget plugging the bites with nail polish. The mites are long gone, for one thing. For another, given the number of bites I had, I would appear ready to join the circus as the half-man, half-painted lady.

Looking on the bright side, Chuck says chiggers only have one life stage where they require a warm-blooded meal — “ you, your dog or cat” as Chuck put it. The rest of the time they are content eating plants or each other. The downside is they don’t tell fly up little flags saying, “All is safe now. We’re just eating each other or your irises.”

Chuck gave sound advice, of course. Spray down your clothing with Deet or something similar. Take off your clothes soon after working outside and shower. When bitten, Benadryl and cortisone are about all that provide relief. If it’s any consolation, Kansas chiggers usually go away by mid-July, but there is no guarantee.

There are a heck of a lot more chiggers here than in Texas, which has plenty of other biting critters. And, as Chuck sagely put it, “You never see the little rascals.”

I stand prepared. Scarred, but prepared.

Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, June 5, 2010.

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