Columns

2002.08.14 Give some time to a mite

on . Posted in By The Way

By DAVID GREEN

I’m not embarrassed to admit it. I’ll say it right here in black on white. Sometimes I write stories for this paper just for my own amusement, or just for the challenge.

Why else would I create a two-page spread about a man who studies mites? It’s in the middle of this week’s Observer.

I didn’t intend to make such a big deal of it. I really didn’t have much of an intention at all. Former reporter Brad Whitehouse, now at Adrian College, told me I might want to talk to a retired professor who makes a hobby of researching mites. Brad thought it might make an interesting story.

That sounded good. I like science stories and I figured even a mite might prove to be an interesting subject. It didn’t take me long to get sucked in, as if a giant podapolipid mite wrapped its little mouth parts around my brain and kept my interest.

The first time I “talked” to Dr. Robert Husband (we actually communicated via e-mail), I learned that a bumblebee can have a dozen or more mites riding around on it. That was it. I was hooked.

When I learned that even a tiny flea can carry around several mites, I was sharing Dr. Husband’s fascination. Whether or not you can stand the thought of microscopic arachnids crawling around everywhere, you have to find this stuff amazing. Am I right? You do think it’s fascinating that fleas have mites, don’t you?

That’s the challenge of a story like this. Take an arcane subject that few people care about and try to make it interesting enough for them to read past the headline. In this case, there are several headlines. Remember, I made big deal out of little mites.

Mites are cousins of spiders and scorpions, and they live in your ears. It’s OK; don’t be embarrassed. You would be hard pressed to find an animal that didn’t have mites. You and I are both animals, you know.

I don’t mean to suggest that everyone reading this has mites crawling around on them, but the odds are in favor of the mites. If you don’t have any today, perhaps you will next week or the next time you walk outside. They’re everywhere.

Most mites have little appendages called setae that function like arms or fingers. You might call them feelers, because mites can use them to feel their way around.

But in the amazing world of mites, there are some who use their setae like a nose. There’s a chemical process that allows them to “smell” their way around with their feelers.

Most internal mites use body openings to make their way inside. They might crawl up through a bee’s nose (the spiracle, actually) or some other convenient orifice. But in the amazing world of mites, some species secrete a fluid that dissolves a cockroach’s outer covering. It’s a slow journey, but eventually a little tunnel leads to a good meal inside or at least a wonderful place to reproduce.

My mite story isn’t only about tiny arachnids. It’s also about a normal size human, Dr. Husband. His work is really quite remarkable, too.

He scrapes mites off beetles and places them under a microscope to study. He makes detailed drawings while looking through the scope. He takes a hundred measurements of a tiny beast that can’t even be seen by the so-called naked eye. It’s such tedious, disciplined work, but the rigors of his weird hobby lead to the discovery of new animals never before identified.

How can you pass by a story like that? How can you help but set aside 15 or 20 minutes this evening to check out the details? And wait until you see the pictures. They’re irresistible.

So I turn back to my original statement: Sometimes I write for my own amusement. Sometimes I spend hours and hours with the challenge of an unusual story that I know few people will read.

I’ve made my pitch. Take the mites or leave them, but know that I had a darn good time writing about them. Sometimes I just need a break from the weekly routine.

    – Aug. 14, 2002 

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