A chigger on the prowl for skin. Photo:

Are you ready for chiggers? Chiggers are ready for you! So unless you enjoy having itchy red bumps eat up your ankles this summer, Grumpy suggests you continue reading.

My first encounter with these nasty, invisible demons came as a kid when I was outside playing with my cousins in Southern Pines, North Carolina. Kids being kids (meaning careless and stupid), we saw no need to wear shoes while running around on the sandy soil and pine straw that cover the Sandhills region of the Tarheel State.

Then my legs started itching something fierce. I looked down to see my ankles covered in red welts the size of Red Hots Candy. Each welt looked like it had a tiny hole in the center. When you squeezed it, clear liquid came out and then a scab formed. Barf.

emRemember Red Hots? Photo:

Convinced that chiggers has bored into my skin, my mother insisted I paint over each welt with clear nail polish to suffocate the little sucker. (Oh, you've done that too?) It did absolutely no good, of course, but the placebo effect made me feel better.

So What Are Chiggers? Glad you asked. Chiggers (Trombicula sp.) are arachnids, relatives of spiders, mites, and ticks. The ones that actually bite you are the teeny-tiny, red larvae about 1/150-inch in diameter or almost too small to see. After they feed on you, they drop to the ground and change into non-annoying adults whose only job is to mate and produce eggs.

Burrowing under your skin is not what causes the itchy welts. Chigger larvae don't burrow. Instead, they inject saliva to dissolve skin cells and consume them (unlike ticks, they don't drink blood). Your body responds with an allergic reaction that forms an itchy, scabby feeding tube. By the time you reach for the nail polish, the chigger is long gone. Fortunately, chiggers don't carry diseases as ticks and mosquitoes do.

How Can I Avoid Chiggers? Your best defense is to create an environment that chiggers don't like. Chiggers prefer shady areas with plenty of moisture. They hang out in brush, pine straw, Spanish moss, and tall grass and weeds. They're most active during warm afternoons.

So make your yard the opposite of this. Cut grass low. Pull the weeds. Remove thick underbrush. Let in more sunlight and air.

What about using pesticide? Well, you could spray your yard with a product designed to kill fleas and ticks. If you're an organic gardener, try dusting the area with garden sulfur (provided you don't mind it smelling like rotten eggs, that is).

However, spraying is rarely necessary if you'll do one simple thing. When you go out into the yard, apply an insect repellent containing DEET to shoes, socks, exposed skin, and clothing. Make these tiny vermin prey on someone else.