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Oak mites and the itchy bites they leave ramp up in Kansas City area

Oak Mites' Bite: Within hours 'I was itching like crazy'

It took master gardener Janie Chisholm a while to realize why she was itching so much after mowing under Oak trees in her yard.
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It took master gardener Janie Chisholm a while to realize why she was itching so much after mowing under Oak trees in her yard.

Got an itch to scratch? It just might be a bite from an oak leaf itch mite.

Just like a year ago, this could be another banner year for the mites, which leave itchy red marks that sometimes have fluid-filled centers.

“Oh they are back in full force,” said Dennis Patton, a horticulturist for the Johnson County Kansas State University Research and Extension Office in Olathe.

“In fact, we’ve been getting calls on and off through most of the summer. Here, in the last several weeks or so, the numbers are picking up.”

Clearly, that means are people are getting bitten.

Last year was considered one of the worst years for mite-related bites in the Kansas City area for the past 10 years. This year could be just as bad, if not worse.

And when the mites start biting, people start calling the extension office.

“My gut is telling me that the last few weeks, it’s probably been our No. 1 call into the office,” Patton said. “I would say it is probably rivaling last year’s numbers.”

Until last year, the Kansas City area hadn’t had a major outbreak of the itch mite for several years.

“Ever since this spring, I’ve in the back of my mind been thinking that this is going to be another severe year for the itch mite,” Patton said.

The reason: The itch mite is associated with the gall-forming insect and this year — once again — the area saw a high number of galls forming on oak trees.

The galls are formed when a wasplike insect stings the leaves of oak trees — mainly pin oaks and red oaks, Patton said. This causes a growth of leaf tissue to form, called a gall. The gall forms around the insect’s larvae. Then the mites feed on the larvae of the gall.

Once the mites feed on the larvae, hundreds of thousands of mites might exit the gall in the fall. The mites spend the winter months in debris.

“When we are out in the fall and the mites are exiting the gall, they are mainly windblown, so that is how they get on us,” Patton said.

Most people won’t know when they are bitten by the mites, which are microscopic. Rather, it will be hours later or the next morning when the red, rashy welts appear on their body, he said.

Unfortunately, there is no practical way to control the gall or mites.

“On the trees, there is absolutely no practical way to control either the gall, that’s the host, or control the mites,” Patton said. “You just cannot keep enough insecticide sprays on the trees to get any type of control.”

Because they are windblown, you can’t spray the atmosphere, either, to stop the mites’ movement through the environment.

What people can do is cover up as much of their skin as possible by wearing big, floppy hats, long-sleeved shirts, long pants and gloves if they are raking leaves.

People can also use personal insect repellants that contain DEET. They should also consider limiting their time outside to up to two hours.

Once people have been exposed to the mites, they should remove their clothes and take a shower, lightly scrubbing with a wash cloth or sponge.

“The act of scrubbing is going to dislodge or smash the mites before they have a chance of biting you,” Patton said. “If you can get them off the body as quickly as possible, that should help decrease the amount of bites you are going to get.”

It’s not 100 percent effective, but it will help, he said.

For those who are bitten, don’t scratch or the bite could become infected. Use a calamine lotion or Benadryl cream to help reduce the itching.

More bad news: The mites will be around until the first frost. Typically, that’s not until mid- to late October.

“A frost is going to put an end to it,” Patton said. “Our likelihood of a frost is not until mid- to late October.”

That’s a long time to deal with it, he said.

Robert A. Cronkleton: 816-234-4261, @cronkb

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