A Midwestern metropolis is under attack from an unseen enemy, with victims pouring into doctors’ offices and pharmacies with telltale wounds.
“Right now I don’t even want to go outside to get the paper,” said 82-year-old Chuck Heinz, a retired manufacturing manager whose upper torso is peppered with dozens of welts.
Megan Kinser, who has been attacked at least two dozen times, goes out only when she has to. “It makes me nervous,” said the 32-year-old pharmacy assistant.
The culprit: Pyemotes herfsi, otherwise known as the oak leaf itch mite.
The eight-legged pest causes intense itching in humans. Native to Central Europe, researchers believe it made its U.S. debut in the 1990s in Kansas City and has since spread to many parts of the Midwest, with outbreaks happening every three to eight years. Nearly invisible to the eye at 1/100th of an inch, the mites are back in full force.
“You can’t see them, they’re microscopic and before you know it they’re under your skin,” said Jared Mayberry, marketing director of Ryan Lawn & Tree in Overland Park, Kan.
People are being told to wear hats and cover most of their skin when they go out and to jump in the shower as soon as they go inside. And to avoid walking under red oaks, particularly pin oaks.
But with at least 3.5 million pin and other red oak trees in the Greater Kansas City area, according to a 2010 estimate by the Agriculture Department, that may be easier said than done.
The arachnid becomes of most concern to humans in the fall, after it spends all summer feasting on the larvae of a gall midge, a fly that nests in oak leaves.
The itch mites eventually tumble to Earth this time of year—as many as 300,000 a day per tree.