East students and Kansas Citians have recently had a red, itchy bump mysteriously appear on their skin; the verdict is almost certainly the oak leaf mite.
Kansas City has become the epicenter of these microscopic bugs, according to ento.psu.edu (Department of Entomology at Penn State University). They multiply by the hundred of thousands on oak leaves and then come down during the early fall season.
Junior Denny Rice is one of the many East students who have experienced the itch mites.
“I had a few bites on my neck and initially wrote it off as mosquitoes until I saw a news broadcast discussing the issue,” Rice said. “ [I] did some research and found the bites were consistent with the mites.”
The SME Cross Country team has also been plagued by mites, with many runners being bitten during practice after school.
“I have a million oak bites, I think [cross country] is a main contributor since we spend so much time outside running through grass and under trees,” senior cross country runner Devon Dieterich said.
Nurses at East have felt the infestation as well, saying a few students and three faculty members came in over the past few weeks searching for relief.
The only thing the nurses have been able to offer them is over-the-counter anti-itch cream, if they have permission, which has relieved students and faculty temporarily
Many students did not know of the oak mites before this year or how to avoid them. The oak mites were noticed by researchers about ten years ago and are believed to have originated in Kansas City, according to ento.psu.edu. Last year they were extremely bad, and this year they are just as bad, if not worse, according to Dr. Raymond Coyle, Professor of Entomology at Kansas State University.
“Our hypothesis is [that the mites are so bad] because of the mild winter we had last year, which resulted in a higher survivability of the mites, in conjunction with a higher numbers of trees that have this marginal leaf gall holder,” Coyle said.
The oak mites produce millions of offspring in a short period of time. So when you encounter a pin oak tree, which is where these galls form, millions of these mites are raining down, according to Coyle. A gall is the abnormal growth on the oak leaves due to the oak mites larvae.
The oak mite feeds on oak marginal fold gall when they are larvae, which are on leaves on pin oak trees. When those galls offer no more food, the mites drop from the trees in search of food. The famished mites bite people, which realeses a neurotoxin that can cause itchiness for several days, according to Joe Boggs of osu.edu (Ohio State University).
Due to their minisculity and ability to land on anything they come across, bug spray and similar spray remedies like DEET have minimal effect.
There is no complete way to avoid the oak mites. However, there are a few ways to evade them if someone has been around pin oak trees or are going to be around them.
If someone has been outdoors recently it is a good idea to immediately remove their clothes and take a shower, according to Coyle. He also said to be aware that pets may have been exposed to pin oak trees and petting them will expose one’s hands to mites.
Wearing a lot of clothing such as long-sleeved shirts and hats and wearing gloves when raking leaves or working outdoors can also help.
Once winter comes, oak mites should no longer be a problem. They are not of concern during the months of December to June, according to Coyle. Until then the only real way to stay completely safe is to stay away from pin oak trees.