Students at Emporia State University, the University of Kansas, Pittsburg State University and now students at K-State have been waking up with mysterious red bites and rashes. Oak Leaf Itch Mites are to blame for these uncomfortable little bites that look very similar to spider bites.
According to Robert Bauernfeind, professor of entomology, nearly 200 mites can live on a single leaf gall, which is a thickened, rolled-up area of leaves. The mites stay there until they are fully mature, falling from the trees when they leave.
“They leave the fold of the leaf margin and sort of rain, or fall out of the tree,” Bauernfeind said. “If a person is under or even near the tree, the mites will land on them and bite.”
The bites are relatively painless but are still uncomfortable. They usually take about 24 hours to appear and look like red welts with a pimple or small head in the center. The bites are usually in the neck and shoulder-area or on the upper torso and back where clothing is the loosest, according to the K-State Department of Entomology’s Oct. 22, 2004 Kansas Insect Newsletter.
“A lot of my friends that have them thought they were bed bugs and were really grossed out,” Megan Anderson, junior in secondary education, said. “The worst one I had was on my stomach, and it was just really itchy. The bites I got lasted about two weeks, and there wasn’t much I could do other than put Benadryl cream on it.”
Douglas Dechairo, director of the Watkins Health Services at the University of Kansas, said the center has been seeing nearly 20 to 30 students a day for the past two weeks complaining about three to four quarter-sized bites on their bodies.
“We see these bites all the time, but never as many as what we’re seeing this year,” Dechairo said. “We didn’t even know what they were at first. The last time we had an epidemic like this was in 2004.”
In 2004, studies estimated that there were 300,000 mites falling from infested pin oak trees in Nebraska per day, according to a November 2014 publication by the K-State Research and Extension Center. The mites are tiny and barely visible to the naked eye. They go largely unnoticed, and there is no known repellent that keeps them away.
“Itch mites are not new, but there’s little known about them or what makes their bites so uncomfortable to humans, or even how to avoid them,” Bauernfeind said.
The mites emerge late in the summer and continue on through the fall until the first freeze. Because they are so small, they may be carried hundreds of yards before actually landing on humans or pets, according to the K-State Research and Extension Center.
“Because they itch so much, there’s a chance of getting a secondary infection from scratching the bites open,” Dechairo said. “If students start to feel pain instead of itching, the redness increases or the bite area gets hot, then we recommend that they come in to be seen to get an oral antibiotic.”