Backyard Nature: Those microscopic oak mites are mighty annoying – Forest Hills Connection

by Marlene Berlin

My husband thought he was being dive bombed by bugs that bit him at night. A friend feared they had bed bugs. My own mysterious bug bites left itchy welts that stuck around for days.

For me, the mystery went unsolved until late July, when The Washington Post revealed whats been biting us: the oak mite, better known as the oak leaf gall mite or itch mite.


The bugs scientific name is pyemotes herfsi. They are tiny things, invisible to the naked eye. They feed on midge larvae by injecting a neurotoxin that paralyzes the target, and they may be here this year in larger numbers because of another feast in our oak trees the eggs laid by the now departed 17-year cicadas.

The female oak mites can give birth to as many as 250 at a time. Most of the offspring are female, but the males emerge first, and they mate with the emerging females. Then, they are dispersed by the wind. And if they come to rest on a human, they attempt to feed. For us, that neurotoxin becomes an itchy irritant within 10 to 16 hours.

Can they be avoided? WTOP reports long sleeves and insect repellent with DEET might help. And a dermatologist told the Post, As poetic as it is to sit under an oak tree, this may not be the summer for that. In her August 13th constituent update, Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh wrote that between August to October, as many as 300,000 mites may drop from a single oak tree.

[Editors note: After reading the sentence above, your humble web editor had to stop everything to scratch several itches. Now, back to Marlene.]

Suggested treatments include calamine lotion, an antihistamine or cortisone cream, or spray or salve containing papain, an enzyme found in meat tenderizer. This 2008 Wired article explains why it works.

Meat tenderizer might relieve itchy bites too. CNN Health recommends mixing it with a bit of water to make a paste, then leave it on the welt for 10 to 15 minutes.

Have the mites been biting you? What have you done to relieve the itching?

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Backyard Nature: Those microscopic oak mites are mighty annoying - Forest Hills Connection

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