I wish I had some revolutionary news to share with you regarding chiggers. Unfortunately, as I sit here itching, the best thing I can do is dispel some of the myths regarding the pesky little creatures.
Chiggers are not insects; they are mites, meaning they are related to spiders and scorpions. Chiggers do not burrow under your skin, and they do not suck your blood. They do pierce your skin with their mouth and produce an enzyme in their saliva that dissolves nearby skin cells. The tissue around this "bite" hardens into a tube similar to a straw, allowing the chigger to suck up now liquefied skin cells.
Feeding (or drinking) can continue for three to four days, but chiggers are often scratched from the skin once the itching starts. After chiggers are dislodged, the straw and saliva that trigger the itching remain until your body can dissolve the straw and repair the damaged skin cells.
The good news about the feeding cycle of chiggers is that you can save your nail polish for your fingers and toes. If you really want to paint all of those bites, the polish probably will not hurt anything, but it does not smother the mites as I often hear.
Other home remedies, such as bathing in bleach, alcohol and various other substances are a little more risky and are not recommended. A hot, soapy shower works well to wash chiggers from the skin.
Chigger larvae (the only life stage that causes the bites) are large enough to see with the naked eye. If you are looking for them, they are about 1/150 inch long. The mites are easiest to see on your skin after you start itching, and they generally look like a tiny black dot in the middle of the itchy spot.
Adults are slightly larger and are sometimes seen moving across the ground in the first warm days of the year. They are bright red, hence the nickname "red bugs." The adults lay eggs in the soil early in the spring before they die and are not parasitic. Larvae hatch and are active from May until the first killing frost in the fall.
Keeping your lawn mowed will reduce the number of chiggers that live in it. The mites prefer shade and move to areas with tall grass, weeds, low-growing shrubs, etc. They often congregate when they find a favorable site, which sometimes explains why you get loaded with bites but your friend who sits 10 feet away in the grass has none.
Many researchers say that avoiding chigger-infested areas is the best way to prevent bites. More realistically, you can use insect repellents (re-apply every two to three hours to maintain effectiveness), permethrin-soaked clothing (availability is increasing at sporting goods and outdoor-clothing shops), or sulfur dust. The smell of sulfur may make that option less desirable, but yes, it works.
To ease the itching, use an antihistamine like benadryl. Calamine lotion, Vaseline and baby oil can help, or you can try using a sunscreen with benzocaine.
You can spray an insecticide on your lawn to kill chiggers, but this practice is not recommended. To be effective, the insecticide would have to be re-applied very often - some products require re-application every two-three days. That gets expensive in a hurry and can kill many other insects (like bees and butterflies).
If you have questions about chigger control or other garden problems, call the Garden Hotline at 843-7058 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Douglas County Extension Master Gardeners run the hot line from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.