Will the tiny pest plague us again? Here’s what we know about this year’s crop of oak mites

How to avoid oak mite bites

The dreaded oak mites are back. Here are some tips on how to avoid bites by the microscopic pests.
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The dreaded oak mites are back. Here are some tips on how to avoid bites by the microscopic pests.

The outbreak of bites from the oak leaf itch mites might not be as bad as they were in the past three years, but you’ll still have to keep your guard up and your long-sleeved shirts on.

The pesky mites are still around, and if they get you, the mites will leave behind an red bite mark with white, sometimes fluid-filled centers. And you’ll be scratching, no matter how much you try to resist the urge.

How bad this year will be remains to be seen. But experts believe this might be a down year compared to the past three years because the oak mites’ known food source — the larvae of the oak margin gall — has not been as abundant this year as in the past couple of years.

“That potentially could mean that there would be less of an outbreak or less of a problem this fall,” said Dennis Patton, a horticulturist for the Johnson County K-State Research and Extension Office in Olathe.

“Are you ready for the ‘but’?” Patton asked. “There are a lot of things we don’t know about this itch mite — and (one of them is) that we don’t know its full range of host food source.”

Still, the number of calls and type of inquiries that the Johnson County K-State Research and Extension Office has received so far support the hope that this year will not be as bad.

That’s welcomed news considering earlier this spring, people were calling to report that the oak mites were already tormenting them.

The bites typically appear 10 to 16 hours after exposure to the mites. The bites can take up to two weeks to disappear. They typically are found on the upper body usually around the neck, shoulder and chest areas where clothing is loose.

They are often confused with chigger bites, which are commonly found in areas under tight clothing, such as belts, underwear or socks on the lower body.

The spring outbreak, which was unusual, had experts concerned this could be another bad year for the mite. Last year was considered a banner year for the mites and it followed a year that was considered one of the worst years for mite-related bites in the Kansas City area for the past 10 years.

But the calls dwindled over the summer.

And while the calls are picking up, they are mostly people asking whether the mites will be back, Patton said, not from people reporting that they have been bitten.

This is the time of year that such calls should be rolling in. Oak mites typically emerge and drop out of the leaves in late July through November. Problems with their bites intensify in the fall as people get outside and work on their lawns and gardens.

Raymond Cloyd, an entomologist with Kansas State University, said he’s also not seeing the volume of calls and emails about the mites that he has had in the past.

“The panic over this mite is less than it was last year and the last two years,” Cloyd said.

Walking around K-State’s campus, he’s also noticed the lack of various types of galls on trees that the mites might feed upon.

A down year for the gall formers mean a reduction in the mites, as they require a marginal oak leaf gall folder to feed on, Cloyd said.

Insects and mites go through cycles and this could just be a down year for them, Cloyd said. But there remains a lot of uncertainty when it comes to the oak mites.

“I’m sure that most people are breathing a sigh of relief that the mites aren’t as bad as they were the last three years,” Cloyd said.

Until funding becomes available for research, answers will remain elusive as to how the mites survive winter, what food sources they have and how weather affects their population.

“We are still in the more-questions-than-answers mode,” Cloyd said. “We’re still doing a lot more guessing or hypothesizing than actual coming up with direct answers.”

It's unknown whether oak leaf itch mites bite cats or dogs. There's no data proving they do, says Gonzalo Erdozain, a veterinarian with Kansas City Veterinary Care. Then again, he said, there's no data proving they don't.

Although their are expected to be fewer oak mites, people will still need to guard against being bit.

▪ Avoid standing under trees known to be infested by oak mites.

▪  Cover up and wear long sleeves and pants and a floppy hat when outdoors. If working in the yard or garden, you should wear rubber rather than leather gloves.

▪ Limit daily yard work time and shower immediately after returning inside. Those clothes should be washed right away, too.

▪ Because the mites can become airborne and are so tiny that they pass through screens, consider keeping windows closed.

▪ Avoid using a leaf blower when doing yard work this fall.

If you are bitten, some people have found relief by using over-the-counter 1 percent hydrocortisone and anti-itch creams. But some people may need a prescription topical steroid.

You should also avoid scratching bites, which could lead to a secondary infection.

It will be weeks before it’s know just how bad this year will be — especially because of the uncertainty over the oak mite.

“The bottom line is that as of now, we don’t really know what is going to happen in the next four, six or eight weeks,” Patton said.

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