I think of that evening as if it were a C.S.I. episode. Three suspects, Hugh Morville, William Tracy and Richard Breton, enter an office. They asked the manager to step outside so they can talk. Suspicious, he refuses. A pushing and tugging match ensues, during which the manager is hit on the head. That shocks the suspects for a few moments, allowing the staff to hustle them outside. Once there they regained their anger, grab weapons, burst back into the office, and attack the manager - killing him. CSI arrives to examine the scene, but they were forced to wait, as the staff insists on holding a prayer vigil over the manager's corpse. And this is what C.S.I. observes while forced to wait - as envisioned in Hans Zinsser’s 1935 epic little book, “Rats, Lice and History”
“As the victim's body cooled, the successive layers of his robes of office also cooled, and all the creatures that had been living within the folds and pleats started looking for a new home. Wave after wave of various fleas, ticks, spiders, pincher bugs, and other creatures flowed out from the corpse, “…like water in a simmering cauldron” - producing in the hushed mourners gathered in the dim cathedral, “…alternate weeping and laughter…’”.
The year was 1170, and the victim was the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. And his personal population of little bugs was proof of what life was like before the invention of the hot shower. Alas, we have since lost this intimate connection to life other than our own on our own, as most of the creatures which evolved to feast upon us were driven to extinction by the evolution of personal hygiene. But there are always survivors from any massacre, to tell the other victim's story, and the lone witness here is an eight legged little lady affectionately called Dermatophagoisdes pteronyssinus, the mighty dust mite. And if you listen closely as you read these words, you can hear them munching on you
Feel the sudden urge to scratch? Don’t bother; scratching just creates tiny Alps of dead skin for these buggies to feast further upon. The truth is we don’t merely live on this planet; this planet also lives on us. Louis Pasture had it right; even fleas have fleas. And so do we, and so did the fleas on Hugh Morville, William Tracy, Richard Breton and Thomas Becket. Despite their small size (three of them could fit in the period at the end of a sentence and about 42,000 of them live in every once of dust) these driven little arthropods have a massive impact because the Dust Mite does not eat dust – ah, if only dusting had such a dedicated helpmate. Rather they feast on the 50 million flakes (about 1 ½ grams) of skin we shed each and every day.
About 80 % of the “dust” you can see floating in a beam of sunlight is your own dead skin, and fodder for these microscopic herbivores. And the 6,000 species of our mighty mite companions also enjoy munching on hair, pollen grains, fungal spores and bacteria, as well as cigarette ash and tobacco, clothing fibers, fingernail clippings and filings, food crumbs, glue, insect parts, paint chips, salt and sugar crystals and even graphite; in short everything and anything we are, use or touch, they eat and regurgitate and re-eat and re-regurgitate, etc., etc. (Dust mites have no digestive tracts).
When you sleep (we spend about 1/3 of our lives in bed) your body and bedding is transformed into an Acaroliocal Park (acarology being the study of dust mites) that makes Michael Crichton’s "Jurassic Park" look like it had been stepped on by Godzilla. As much as half the weight in your ten year old mattress could be the 10 million mites who live there and depend on you for their dinner each time you lay you down to go to sleep.
Mites don’t like sunlight and they love high humidity, meaning when you climb into bed tonight they will be there to welcome you, just waiting for you to exhale. They also love rugs and carpets, dusty bookshelves and dusty books and nooks and crannies on fabric covered furniture. And they are completely harmless – except that their poop and their desiccated corpses are a source of human allergies and likely a cause of asthma - which hints that we evolved in more open conditions, and not in caves or studio apartments.
During a mite’s lifetime of 3 to 4 weeks she can produce 200 times her own weight in mighty poop and leave 300 cream colored mighty mite eggs, all capable of taking your breath away. A dehumidifier helps with the allergies (dust mite populations drop at anything below 50% humidity) and regular vacuuming can help keep their populations under control.
But there are studies showing that carpet or mattress shampooing or even using a Hepafilter on your vacuum cleaner merely increases the resident population because it moistens it and scatters it. These tiny bugs have evolved so closely with us that there are no conditions or chemicals that will kill them without doing the same thing to you. So basically, the best we can hope for in our war with dust mites is a draw, because the world of the dust mite is a familiar yet strange place where air behaves more like water and each human hair supports an isolated universe.
And as every Ying has its Yang, and every Thomas Becket has his King Henry II, the herbivore dust mite has engendered the family Cheyletidae, the micro-predatory dust mite, which can be 6 – 8% of the total mighty mite population. These minuscule lions and tigers and bears stalk their prey each night, even migrating with them onto and off your body, unseen and largely un-felt, pouncing with vicious crushing microscopic jaws.
They are no more or less heartless for their lack of a heart. Some digest their food inside its own shell (something to think about the next time you eat crab) by injecting masticating juices, reducing their meals to a tiny pile of mush before consuming it.
Yes, its a mite eats mite world out there. And despite our best efforts we still live with the mighty Dust Mite, carting away the excess of us, with all the dedication of Republican lawyer defending a billionaire tax cheat. So just sleep tight and let the bed bugs bite. They have their own dust mites to feed.
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