As it is the week for M on ABC Wednesday, I thought I might write about the mighty mite, with thanks to the QI Book of Animal Ignorance.
Mites are eight-legged members of the spider clan and after insects are the most diverse group of creatures on the planet. Over 48,000 species have been identified so far, but this is probably just a fraction of the total.
The problem for the bugologists is that mites are so tiny and they can live almost anywhere, on land or sea, from the freezing depths of the ocean to hot springs that would boil most other life away.
Mites can thrive in the windpipe of a honey bee or hitch lifts between flowers on the beak of a hummingbird. One square foot of forest floor contains one million mites from over 200 different species.
They burrow in head first and have a digestive system so efficient that they don’t produce any waste and when they die, they simply dissolve away.
The species we’re most familiar with is the dust mite, or “skin-eating feather-stabber” to translate its Latin name. They eat the small bag of skin flakes that each of us loses every year.
They’re responsible for that musty smell you get when using a vacuum cleaner or emptying the bag, caused by their digestive enzymes. Even though they can aggravate asthma, dust mites do an important job of getting rid of waste. Vacuuming just redistributes them about the house, while carpet cleaning simply creates the warm, moist conditions for them to thrive.
Mites can be a problem, of course. They cause scabies and viruses such as Lyme disease, dermatitis and typhus. One species almost wiped out the honey bee and mites cause billions of pounds worth of damage to crops each year.
But they have something in common with the dinosaur — both were given their Latin titles by Lancastrian-born biologist, Sir Richard Owen, founder of the Natural History Museum.