What’s been eating me lately?
Chiggers – and the dilemma they bring, because a veganic garden is more than plants. My small patch of veganically managed earth is a welcoming haven for birds, squirrels, mice, and the insect pollinators so dear to my heart.
However, where those creatures congregate, chiggers are sure to follow. To my great discomfort, they followed them straight to my garden – and eventually to me.
So my dilemma is simple. I need ways to avoid chiggers naturally so we can share my garden in itch-free harmony.
But first, a bit of background on chiggers – and what to expect if they ever find you!
What Are Chiggers?
As my recent post of finding a veganic mosquito repellent indicated, I hate to itch.
However, while the summer heat and humidity bring plenty of mosquitoes to my part of the world, they aren’t the only itch-bearers a Midwestern July brings.
First, chiggers aren’t insects. They’re mite larvae and a bite threat only in the larval stage.
As adults, they live in and help maintain the soil. That’s their contribution to ecological health.
As babies, chiggers are bright red, hairy, and – seen through a microscope – could audition for the next sci-fi blockbuster.
Like their tick relatives, chiggers hang on when they bite. And the worst thing about them?
They’re too small to see but can produce an allergic itch reaction that mosquito bites never approach.
How Chiggers Feed
Chiggers work from the ground up, boarding at your ankles and ascending to their feeding grounds. Favorite spots include the backs of the knees, the waistline, and the armpits.
In other words, they crave thin, wrinkled, or folded skin because that’s all their fragile, short mouthparts can penetrate. The places you probably wouldn’t scratch in public!
Once they insert their mouthparts (which we can’t feel), things take a very nasty turn. According to the Nebraska Forest Service, chigger saliva contains a skin cell-dissolving enzyme.
Unlike mosquitoes, these creatures don’t drink blood. They drink liquefied skin!
After a chigger has pumped corrosive saliva into the skin for a few hours, the skin cells alongside the saliva stream harden into a tube or stylostome.
Doing so protects them from more damage, but it also creates a feeding tube through which the chigger siphons the dissolved cells, as if it were using a straw.
The tube forms an itchy red welt (papule) that enlarges as the chigger feeds.
Chiggers continue pumping saliva and sucking up the liquefied contents until they’re removed or too full to eat more. If full, they drop to the ground on their own.
Removing one is a simple matter of scratching or brushing it off.
Though the Chiggers Are Gone, the Itch Lingers On
The embedded feeding tubes departing chiggers leave behind trigger an itchy allergic reaction. It lasts until the body finally absorbs the tube, which can take more than ten days.
Thankfully, in most cases, the itching peaks 24 to 48 hours after an initial bite. However, scratching the welts during that time could infect the feeding tube and worsen the irritation.
I confess to some serious scratching, but I also follow it up by disinfecting the itchy areas with a topical antiseptic.
Once the itching subsides, the worst will be over because chiggers found in the U.S. don’t carry disease. But enough on chigger behavior. Now it’s time to look at…
Three Ways to Avoid Chiggers Naturally
Natural chigger avoidance method 1:
Research indicates that the easiest way to avoid chiggers naturally is to schedule my garden time when they’re inactive.
And, according to Roger Williams of the Oklahoma State University Extension Service, chiggers are most active in the afternoon when the soil temperature has warmed to between 77 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit.
I think now that chiggers invaded me because I broke my normal early morning-late afternoon gardening rule to do some extra watering around 1 p.m. and in suffocating heat.
Natural chigger avoidance method 2:
A suggestion from the New York City Health website can help me determine if chiggers lurk in an area before I start gardening there:
“… [P]lace a piece of black cardboard upright in a section of the lawn. If chiggers are present… they will move very rapidly toward the new object [and]… appear as pinkish dots moving across the cardboard.”
Natural chigger avoidance method 3:
If I can steel myself to accept the odor of rotten eggs, dusting my gardening togs with powdered sulfur is almost guaranteed to keep chiggers far, far away.
But, of course, it will temporarily keep family and friends far, far away as well!
Besides being a veganic gardener, what’s motivating me to avoid chiggers naturally rather than eliminate them with chemicals?
The fact that, in addition to being soil builders, chigger nymphs and adults eat ticks. And for that reason alone, they now have a standing invitation to visit my garden!