Horticulture: Fighting the battle with chiggers
Sources: Lee Townsend and Mike Potter, extension entomologists
It’s chigger time across Kentucky. Just talking about them may make you itch. Chiggers are actually the immature stage of certain mite species. You’ll find them most often in overgrown, bushy areas. They also congregate in shady, humid areas near stream banks, under or around shade trees or in berry thickets.
After hatching, larvae crawl around until they find and attach to a suitable host. In addition to humans, chiggers feed on a variety of wild and domestic animals, including snakes, turtles, birds, rodents and domestic pets such as dogs and cats.
A widespread myth is that chiggers burrow into your skin and feed on your blood. This isn’t true. Instead, they attach to a skin pore or hair follicle and then inject a salivary fluid that produces a hard, domed area around them, and they use a feeding tube to withdraw liquefied tissues from hosts. The red welt rash and intense itching are allergic reactions to the salivary secretions and can last for up to two weeks or longer.
Larvae feed for about three or four days; then drop off and eventually mature into non-parasitic adults.
There are ways you can protect yourself from these itchy pests. Avoid walking through unmown fields, brush and other overgrown areas. Instead, walk in the center of mown trails to avoid brushing up against vegetation where chiggers congregate.
Create a barrier when you hike or camp in potentially infested areas so that chiggers can’t come in contact with your skin. Wear long pants that are tucked into boots or socks and long-sleeve shirts. Clothing made of tightly woven fabrics keep chiggers from reaching the skin as easily.
You can also apply an insect or tick repellent; just be sure to read and follow the directions on the container. Products containing DEET or picaradin are easy to find and use. You can also find clothing treatments containing permethrin.
Showering or bathing immediately after coming indoors effectively removes chiggers that have not yet attached. If that is not possible, thoroughly and briskly rubbing your skin with a dry towel may remove many chiggers before they are able to attach and feed.
While chiggers are most common in wild overgrowth, they can also make a home in shady areas of yards, parks, camps, picnic sites and recreation areas. You can control chiggers in your outdoor environment with effective vegetation management that allows sunlight in and reduces humidity. Prune trees and bushes, and mow closer. Remove scrub brush piles and accumulated debris to reduce protection for small animals and are important hosts for chiggers. As an added benefit, these steps will reduce problems with ticks as well.
For more information about chiggers and other summer pests, contact the Woodford Cooperative Extension Service, 873-4601.