As I write this, my skin cells are dying by the thousands and their cellular contents are being digested by the excretions of hundreds of larval trombiculid parasites, or, as we call ’em here in Texas, chiggers. I can’t say exactly what kind they are because they’re too small to see and most of the hundreds of known species can be found in Texas. We have a lot of other fun critters here, like killer bees and mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus. I don’t mind them so much – at least you can see them coming and take a swat at them or run away.
So, how did this sorry state of affairs come about, you may ask. Susan and I were at Campión Trails trying once again to get the perfect macro photograph of a Bluet Damselfly. This particular damselfly is less than an inch long, so getting any sort of shot at all requires one to get pretty close. We ran across a lot of Familiar Bluets and Brown damselflies in one particular spot off the main trail near the river. For about five minutes I was perched on the ground in the leaf litter.
There are two main species of nasty flesh-eating chiggers in Texas (most species eat things other than humans, like crops). One prefers grassy areas and leaf litter while the other prefers swampy areas and decaying wood. I was in an area that both species would have loved.
One thing you need to know about chiggers is that they hang out together in small clumps by the thousands, commonly called “mite islands”. I don’t think anyone knows exactly why and there’s a shortage of acarologists to study such things these days. If you enter the mite island, your luck runs out, while a person standing right next to you will remain completely unscathed. As you’ve probably guessed, I was kneeling in a mite island. Susan, standing a few feet away, remained completely unscathed.
At the time I didn’t notice anything unusual. The little alien parasites are too small to see even when they’re hundreds of them walking around on you. They have to get between your skin and something to push against (like socks or an elastic waistband) in order to get enough traction to jam their head through your flesh. Once in place, they start injecting digestive fluids that disintegrate and dissolve skin cells. But it can take hours before there’s any noticeable sensation.
Usually, a photo expedition to the wilderness of Texas would be followed by thorough decontamination procedures; showering, washing clothes, looking for blood-sucking parasites, etc. But Campion Trails is a local rollerblading and bicycling trail where the only danger would normally be tripping over an armadillo or being hit by a startled mourning dove. So we drove home and had dinner. I watched Futurama and spent an hour or two coding while I had two socks full of chiggers that were slowly eating their way north.
Just prior to falling asleep that night I recall having some vague notion that I must have a mosquito bite or two on my ankle because I felt a slight itch. I awoke the next morning to the realization that I had a few chigger bites. Somewhere around 100 on my right ankle, about 30 on my left ankle and 20 or so more scattered around in other locations. And, of course, other chiggers from my socks would have spread around to anything they touched and there were probably quite a few living in the bed. There was lots of cleaning that day. Washing sheets, washing clothes, vacuuming rugs.
If the presence of chiggers in Texas is a bad thing, it’s partially compensated for by being the home of the best known remedy for chigger bites, Chigarid. Anyone who’s had a chigger bite can tell you that those puny medicines you’d use for a bee sting or a mosquito bite won’t do much to relive the pain and itching of a chigger bite. You need the atomic bomb of itch medication. Chigarid is a noxious and highly flammable combination of collodion (a dangerous 19th century photographic fluid, later used as an explosive), phenol (yes, the carcinogenic stuff phenolic resin is made from), and camphor. This bizarre combination of toxic waste basically seals the bite, and sometimes the chigger, under an airtight layer of deadly plastic from which nothing will ever escape alive.
If Chigarid isn’t available, I’ve heard that clear fingernail polish makes a tolerable substitute. I’ve also heard tell that meat tenderizer, a common cure for jellyfish stings, may bring partial relief (I never quite bought into this though – the chigger is using its own meat tenderizer already and I don’t see why you’d want to help it!) . Of course those who have multiple chigger bites may consider immediate amputation of the affected limb preferable to all the above.
The feeling of having your flesh digested by parasites is not a good one. But Texas chiggers don’t carry any dangerous viruses like some of our other insects. So in a week or two I should be good as new.