Blackberry Time Equals Chigger Time

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Blackberries are tempting fruit this time of year, but there is one particular hazard that awaits unwary pickers.

I am proud to be part of the food chain–part of the process which helps transfer energy from one form to another.

Plants convert sunlight to biomass using chlorophyll. Herbacious (plant-eating) creatures like rabbits convert the plants to protein. Then, a host of lifeforms utilize the rabbit’s protein to sustain life–and again, I’m proud to be part of that process, even when I become the prey.

Usually humans are at the tip-top of the chain, utilizing nearly every other form of life some way or another, but rarely giving anything in return. That is, until we play host for a chigger.

I recently played host to several chiggers. Most on my ankles, a few made it up around my knees but the rest are…well, I won’t say exactly where the rest are.

Chigger — it’s a cute-sounding name, but I itch just thinking about them.

Not long ago I went sneaking around my mom’s farm pond trying to outwit her well-educated bass. One half of the pond is relatively clear of weeds and bushes and of course that’s the area that’s usually fish.  But that won’t always do for me. My adventurous spirit forces me to crawl through the bushes to reach the uncharted reaches of the massive one-acre pond.

I barrelled my way through a nearly impenatrable jungle of grass, weeds and bushes. Oh, I knew the chiggers and ticks were there, but it mattered not for the mighty bass had challenged my pioneer spirit.

For my efforts, I was rewarded with several hard-fighting, chunky, farm pond largemouths — and a gracious supply of chiggers. The bass I threw back, the chiggers I was forced to keep.

Scientific-types tell us that once chiggers crawl aboard, they migrate to the “warmer regions of the body.” I don’t need to tell you where that’s at.

They’re tiny little critters, almost invisible. Webster’s describes a chigger as “a 6-legged larval mite (family Trombiculidae) that sucks the blood of vertabrates and causes intense irritation.”  That Webster-guy does have a way with words.

When feeding, chiggers burrow into the skin and release a toxin, dissolving the skin tissue which causes the itching and swelling.

Now I’ve never read anything that told me what happens to chiggers once they’ve taken up residence on your ankles. I do know, from first hand experience, that they’ll drive you crazy for about 48 hours or so, and then the bitten area will gradually return to normal. But I don’t know if they die or leave.

Regardless, I do know that the best medicine is prevention. And physical prevention is probably more effective than chemical although a combination of the two would be in order.  If you have reason to venture into chigger and tick territory (remember, it’s blackberry-picking time), wear long pants and long-sleeve shirts no matter how hot it is. And most importantly, wear boots and tuck your pants cuffs into the boots before you lace them up tightly. If you don’t have boots, you can wrap your cuffs tightly to your leg with tape.

This is your best defense, it will drive a sane chigger to drink. Should the little codgers make their way beneath your epidermis (skin) in spite of it all, you’re just out of luck. There are a couple of commercial remedies but most just relieve the itching, they don’t actually kill or remove the chigger.

One home remedy that will shorten the time of discomfort is clear fingernail polish. Be advised that it’s not approved by the FDA or any doctor I know, but I’ve used it for years and I’m still alive to tell about it.

In theory, I believe clear fingernail polish brushed on a chigger bite is supposed to cut off the little bugger’s air supply causing his demise earlier than what might otherwise occur. Of course I don’t suppose the fingernail polish has to be clear and who knows, you might even prefer pearly pink spots on your legs.

And besides, should your wife ever discover an unknown bottle of fingernail polish in your car, you can always say, “Oh, that’s just my chigger medicine dear.”

(Author’s Note: I originally wrote this column in 1994, 20 years ago. However, absolutely nothing has changed about chiggers from then to now.)

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Richard Simms is a professional journalist and fishing guide in Chattanooga. (See www.ScenicCityFishing.com) He is also a former wildlife officer for TWRA, a book author and a self-proclaimed "River Rat" with a sincere desire for spreading the message about our bountiful natural resources and the people charged with using, or protecting them.

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