The Q&A Archives: Chiggers make gardening unbearable

Question: I have 2 acres of recently cleared land for gardens. The last few years, however, chiggers have made gardening unbearable in July and August. What can I do about them? Carolyn Burgess Esmont, VA

Answer: You can dramatically reduce the number of chiggers in your garden by keeping the garden weed free and the tall grass and scrub growth around the garden mowed to the ground, says Eric Day, manager of the Insect Diagnostic Laboratory at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg. Chiggers like weedy areas and are especially troublesome on newly cleared land. These tiny red mites are most prevalent east of the Rockies, but some species are also found in California and Arizona. The adult mites emerge from the soil in spring and lay as many as 15 eggs on the ground. The eggs hatch in a week, and larvae crawl up grass blades and weeds to attach themselves to humans or animals as they brush past. The larvae are the only stage that attacks humans. Once attached, the larvae pierce a skin pore or hair follicle with their mouthparts and inject saliva, which digests skin. Chigger larvae feed on digested skin for up to six days before dropping off and pupating in the soil. There are repeated generations during the year in the South, but only two or three generations a year up North. The feeding causes the characteristic welts and intense itching. Some people who have been repeatedly exposed to chiggers may develop immunity to the irritation. Contrary to popular belief, chiggers don't burrow into the skin or suck blood, says Day. Wearing long pants, socks and long sleeved shirts while working in the garden, spraying an insect repellant such as DEET on you clothes and body and spraying soil sulfur around the area helps repel these pests, says Day. Launder any infested garments in hot (125_F) water as soon as possible to kill the mites.

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