Velvet Mite

2008 August 2

I put out what was supposed to be a cricket trap[1] a few days ago, but didn’t catch any crickets. What I did catch were some woodlice, something that looks like a carrion beetle larva, but I keep finding them scampering around where there is no evidence of any carrion, a stone centipede, and a few tiny things that included this little orange mite:

And I do mean “little”, the body was just about a millimeter long. I see these in the leaf litter all the time. They look like tiny little orange specks that just seem to drift around, because you can’t see the legs very well with the naked eye. It was really pushing the limits of my macrophotography lashup – out of 46 pictures this was the best I could do as far as focus and resolution [2]. It’s one of the “velvet mites”, in the superfamily Trombidioidea

There’s something odd with the two front feet, but it was hard to tell exactly what because it kept waving them around so the pictures kept coming out blurry. This was the best I could get:

It looks like it has an enlarged pad on the end of the front feet. In some of the (very blurry) pictures it looked like the pad could fold over backwards far enough to grab onto things, kind of like a hand with just one finger.

As far as what they eat and what they do, I’m reluctant to be too specific here because it is a large familiy with several thousand species, which could have many different lifestyles, and I have no idea which one this is. But in general, red velvet mites are parasites of other arthropods when they are young, particularly of larger arthropods like grasshoppers (although, just yesterday a mosquito that was trying to bite me had a bunch of tiny little orange specks on its underside that I strongly suspect were immature velvet mites). Once they mature, they turn predator, preying on things in the leaf litter and soil that are even smaller than they are – other mites, springtails, tiny worms, and whatever else may be present.

And then there is the color: why are they bright orange? Well, I’m finding ominous-sounding references to unwise entomologists who tasted them, and evidently found them revolting, but nothing first-hand [3]. I frequently see them crawling around other arthropods, and they are always ignored, so evidently they are not what one would call esteemed as food. The bright color would therefore be, as usual, a warning to predators saying “you really, really don’t want to eat me. Move along, move along.” Apparently, they don’t have any known natural enemies

[1] It consisted of a plastic cup buried in the ground up to its rim, with a mixture of oatmeal and molasses in the bottom, and a board propped over it to make it appealing to the sorts of things that live in leaf litter and under rocks. For the record, the local crickets are completely uninterested in it.

[2] It didn’t help that he was another scurrier. For such a little guy, he sure could move. I think this is about the smallest thing I can photograph with the equipment I’ve got, and it’s certainly the smallest arthropod I’ve *attempted* to photograph. There are a lot more arthropods even smaller than this one that I could get pictures of, but only with a real, full-blown microscope.

[3] The closest I’m finding is this paper (which, unfortunately, I can’t link to the full text of, and I was only able to read because our library subscribes to the journal), that cites a “personal communication” in 2003 from J. Schmidt, of the Carl Hayden Bee Research Center, Tucson, Arizona[4]. He evidently says that they “taste unpleasant”.  I thought about sending him an email to ask about this, but he seems to have gone to some other job.  Hmm.  Track him down, or try one myself? Decisions, decisions . . .

[4] This appears to be Justin O. Schmidt, who is also known for developing the Schmidt Sting Pain Index. I wonder if he is also open to the idea of creating an Arthropod Flavor Index?

6 Responses
  1. August 16, 2008

    One can just imagine the “personal communication”…

    Dear T___,

    Thank you so much for your suggestion to go suck on some orange velvet mites. They were delicious! Please find enclosed a friend from out here in Arizona. He may want to suck on you for a while. Go ahead and let him – it really tickles.

    J Schmidt

    PS – Don’t mind that rattling noise. It’s just there to scare away predators.

  2. August 29, 2008

    Update: I found another one, and tried tasting it. Didn’t notice any significant flavor, maybe some hints suggestive of hot pepper, but it was hard to be sure. Then again, it was about the size of a single grain of salt, so unless it was one hunk of burnin’ evil flavor, a single specimen probably wouldn’t be tasteable in any case. I might need to find at least five or six in order to actually get enough to taste.

    I went back to one of the pages linked to above, and noticed that the Arizona velvet mites are actually quite a lot bigger than the one I photographed here – the pictures with a ruler show that they are almost a centimeter long. That would obviously be a lot easier to taste.

  3. froggsong permalink
    September 2, 2009

    oh my… Why on earth would one purposefully taste a mite? Are you totally serious? This is just baffling…

  4. September 2, 2009

    Froggsong: Yes, of course I’m serious. Why wouldn’t I be? As for why one would purposefully taste a mite – well, to find out what it tastes like, of course. I mean, what other reason could there be?

  5. theozarkian permalink
    May 20, 2011

    As a fledgling collector of dung beetles (I prefer “Dungistador”), I was finding these tiny little orange specks in my traps. Since I mark the location of the traps with florescent orange surveyor’s flags, I originally thought they were just specks of detritus from the flags. Finally got off my dead butt and looked at them under the scope, and they are gorgeous orange mites.

    Love the tasting project. I have an eight-year-old daughter who’s pretty gullible. I’ll keep you posted on the results.

  6. April 9, 2012

    I found one on a tree in the yard, and took a video. 😀

Comments are closed.