The Vineyard Gazette – Martha’s Vineyard News
Chilmark’s Susan Straight isn’t sassy when she insists she finds the most interesting things in her outdoor shower.
Outdoor shower aficionados will understand his experience, even if they describe intruders less glowingly. Critters are a common complaint for those whose shower is also a habitat.
Strait’s Shower Mates are the creepy-crawly type – “creepy” describing their movement, not their intent. His friends, while furry, are harmless and even useful in the ecosystem, but they can have questionable strengths as bathing buddies. Maybe it’s the humidity that they like, or maybe the scented soaps and shampoos that attract them. Or maybe they’re just peeps.
It was not a frog but a mighty mite that brought interest and color to her shower. The red velvet mite has been described by those unaware as an “obese spider covered in plush red velvet fabric”. In this column, this description is not an insult: we practice body love and we love spiders, although we also insist on scientific accuracy.
Red velvet mites are not spiders. They are more like arachnids, and although they are related to spiders, they are different. Nor are they insects. Mites and spiders both have eight legs. Spiders have two body parts while mites have only one. Ticks are closely related to mites. Insects, on the other hand, have three body parts – head, thorax and abdomen – and only six legs.
It is with these legs that the red velvet mite dances as part of a complex and interesting mating ritual. Male red velvet mites work hard to find a mate. They start by creating a structure of sticks and plants on which they will place a spermatophore (packet of sperm). Entomologists have romantically called this structure a “love garden”.
Moving away from this erotic edifice, the mite lays down a silky path and then waits at the head of the slippery path. If a female passes by, he will dance, and if she likes what she sees, she will follow the path to the love garden. Once there, she’ll sit atop his spermatophore, effectively soaking herself.
A more passionate red velvet mite story is hard to imagine.
But things don’t always go as planned in love or science. If another male finds the path slippery, he will destroy it and then spread his own material over the area. Even with the destruction, a woman can still be drawn to the damaged love shack and take her rivals’ deck, instead of her original suitor’s.
Don’t feel sorry for the mites, though. This betrayal is bad but better than getting eaten, which is another red velvet mite custom. They are predators of many insects and even eat each other.
In the end, lots of mites are a good thing: they’re harmless, even helpful creatures that help with decomposition and serve as a biological control agent by consuming agricultural pest species. Laying up to 100,000 eggs, red velvet mites are really fruitful and they really do multiply (but preferably not in your shower). Their life cycle has been classified as “it’s complicated”, the sequence including an egg, pre-larva, larva, protonymph, deutonymph, tritonymph, and adult.
With the dashing ways of this mite, it is no surprise that the species has been used as an aphrodisiac and has been called Indian Viagra for its potency. Although I cannot recommend or even comment on this use of these animals, there are some that mites.
Suzan Bellincampi is Islands Director for the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown and the Nantucket Wildlife Sanctuary. She is also the author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature and The Nature of Martha’s Vineyard.