It’s chigger time again. Only it isn’t. Last I checked, there had never been a confirmed identification of the so-called red mites on Long Island. What we do have is larval ticks, which are annoying and insidious and extraordinarily difficult to avoid.
Around here, though, people talk about “chiggers” all the time. This may be the result of a long-shared myth about red mites, or chiggers, that they burrow into skin, lay eggs there, and then hatch a new round of biting pests. It is possible that the apparently multiplying nature of larval tick bites triggers in many people recollections of the mistaken belief about the mostly Southern species of mites.
If one is inclined to think of evolution as glorious in all its forms, larval ticks are remarkable. Having watched them repeatedly through magnifying glasses and even a microscope, their resilience could be considered masterful, if simple. Here is how it works: Absent-mindedly, we scratch at an itch, dislodging a larval tick from where it has attached itself to our skin. Not to be so easily dissuaded, it crawls a short distance away and digs in again in search of a blood meal.
You can observe this yourself. The next time you think you have larval ticks on board for a ride, before scratching, look for a small, red, raised spot with a tiny, dark speck at its center. That speck, about half the size of a grain of Long Island beach sand, is a tick; scratch at it a little, remaining careful that it does not end up under a fingernail, then watch. It will move away at a surprising rate of speed. I keep a bit of painters or masking tape at hand to capture them at that point; simply dab it on and off, as if picking up lint from a sweater.
Avoiding the leaf litter and damp grass where up to a thousand or more tick larvae lurk is the best strategy this time of the year, when they are most active on the East End. Coating footwear with strong insect repellent, such as those with DEET, if you must venture into the woods is generally effective. Full-body tick checks are essential, starting at the feet. Infested clothing should be run through a hot dryer cycle before it is washed.
Once larval ticks bite, there is not much you can do other than suffer. The itch should lessen within a week, time enough, if you are like me, to go back into the woods and get attacked once again.