Some oak mites apparently survived Kansas City’s mild winter and have been tormenting people with their very itchy bites off and on since a late-February warm spell.
For outdoor lovers, that’s unwelcome news. During all three years of the recent outbreak, the oak mite bite season didn’t hit here until late summer or early fall, when experts believe the females start raining down from trees after laying their eggs.
“When people started calling and telling us, ‘I’ve already gotten bit,’ that raised our concern,” said Dennis Patton, a horticulturist for the Johnson County K-State Research and Extension Office in Olathe. “Obviously the concern is, it’s going to be a bad year. But we can’t say for certain.”
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As still-growing leaves in the red oak family soon mature, horticulturists will inspect them for oak leaf margin galls, which are believed to be the mites’ main food source. A large gall crop could portend an oak mite armageddon come fall, Patton said.
Last week, Patton spotted galls forming on pin oaks in southern Kansas, 20 miles from the Oklahoma border. That area’s growing season is about 10 days ahead of us, Patton said. So in a few days, we might know more here about the potential for a big outbreak.
Meanwhile, the early mite bite reports haven’t been limited to the KC area. They also are being reported in Wichita, Patton said.
Dan Aires, the director of dermatology at the University of Kansas Health System, has treated three local victims in recent weeks.
All three victims had been working with oak leaves or near oak trees. All had the typical red, super itchy bumps on their arms not caused by poison ivy.
“It’s a surprise because it’s so early,” said Aires, whose colleagues also have reported treating patients for apparent oak mite bites.
Because the doctors haven’t seen the mites, they can’t blame them for sure, Aires said. But the bites’ appearance, location on exposed arms and typical high-itch factor fit the oak mite narrative.
Experts don’t know enough about these microscopic pests to predict how bad the outbreak could be this year.
Funding is needed for research on how the mites survive winter, what food sources they might have beyond galls, and how various summer weather might affect their survival, said Raymond Cloyd, an entomologist with Kansas State University.
How do mites expand their territory? If they survive the winter in our flower beds or mulch, do they go back up trees looking for food come spring?
“We don’t have enough answers for the questions,” Cloyd said.
Avoiding mites isn’t easy. Repellants reportedly aren’t very effective but may be better than nothing, Patton said.
Cutting down that pin oak tree in your front yard won’t work if other oak trees grow on your block or even in your neighborhood. Wind can carry the mites through the air for miles. Even using a leaf blower can spread mites to a neighbor’s yard or house. Because the mites are so small, they can blow right throw a window screen.
The best advice is to forgo the tank top and shorts and instead wear long sleeves and pants when outdoors, experts say. Wear a big floppy hat. When raking or handling leaves, don rubber gloves, which may protect hands better than leather ones. Perhaps limit your daily yard work time. Shower immediately after returning inside, and throw those yard clothes into the washer right away.
You also may need to shut windows and avoid touching pets that have been among oak leaves outdoors.
Some bite victims find relief using over-the-counter 1 percent hydrocortisone anti-itch ointment or cream. But many people need a stronger, prescription topical steroid, Aires said.
“The issue with the prescribed steroids is, they should be used as little as possible,” Aires said.
Ideally, people should put the cream or ointment only on the area that was bitten and not on any surrounding skin, he said. “Hopefully, after a treatment or two, you can stop scratching.”
Treating the bites, which sometimes have fluid filled centers, early can reduce the itch factor and the desire to scratch. Too much scratching can create an open wound and lead to infection. Antihistamine pills can help, but it is best to avoid the sedating version, Aires said.
Meanwhile, it appears that winter’s freezing temperatures didn’t subdue the mites as much as experts had hoped.
Cloyd thinks people are getting bitten earlier this year because the mites are active earlier than normal.
“I think this mite is here to stay,” he said.