Thursday, August 25, 2011

Advice about Chiggers

So. In the last few months, I've spent an awful lot of time thinking about chiggers.

As you may know already, chiggers are the juvenile stage of a mite.  The adults are harmless, and not interested in animals, but in order to mature, they need delicious animal flesh. To that end, they climb up things that smell tasty, and find a pore or hair follicle to attach themselves to, and go to town.

That's an important bit. Their mouth-parts can't actually bite you.  They need to use the preexisting holes in your skin to feed, which they do by injecting enzymes, and sucking out the cell soup that results.  Your body produces a response to this, and that's what causes the itching. Most of the time the chigger is long gone before you will even begin to itch.  Aside from the itching, they're otherwise harmless, at least here in the US. In Asia and around parts of the South Pacific you can acquire scrub typhus from chigger bites, which sounds like a pretty bad time.

I'm somewhat battle-hardened when it comes to the little guys, and the fact that I have not been without a least a dozen or so bites for the last few months hasn't been a big deal.  Going through a few weeks with many hundreds of them will do that to you.  I would like to offer you some advice if you live in chigger country, so that you don't have to go through that experience.

Firstly: Wear long pants.  Some of my research partners disagree on this, but that's mostly meant they got chigger bites on their underwear lines, rather than on their ankles. Chiggers will climb your legs until they hit a barrier of some kind, and then look for a spot to feed.  That can be your sock, or where your shoe meets your ankle, or what have you. Or it can be your underwear line.  Or past it.  Seems like a simple decision to me.  If you're constantly moving, only in chigger territory for a short time, or outside at times they're not very active (when it's cool, wet, or very, very hot), long pants tucked into your boots may be all you need.

Monday, August 15, 2011

What I've Been Up To

As I keep mentioning field work and related pitfalls on my blog, some of you may be wondering exactly what sort of research I've been working on.  It's fairly straightforward, as these things go:  The study is intended to investigate the relationship between social institutions and urban forest canopy cover/structure.  This is more exciting that it appears at first blush, I promise.

Two parts of that sentence may not make a great deal of sense to some folks.  So I'll explain precisely what is meant by "social institutions" and "urban forest", as the former may seem very broad, and the latter something of an oxymoron.

I have the excellent privilege of being loosely affiliated with the research institution run in part by Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom, the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis.  Her work with IFRI informs this research project, and it is IFRI's definition of social institution that we are making use of: "institutions are defined as rules that constrain human behavior, either by encouraging people to do x or not to do x" (IFRI Manual, 2008).  That includes both formal--city ordinances--and informal--the approval or disapproval of your neighbor--rules.  This is may be broader than you might have guessed!  Our research group spent many, many hours devising a survey intended to probe the particular institutions we are interested in, primarily Neighborhood Associations (NAs) and Homeowner's Associations (HOAs).  We are also trying to investigate to what extent individuals are influenced by their neighbors and how much these things may impact land management decisions, particularly as those decisions relate to trees.

Now for the "Urban" bit of urban forest.  The word conjures up different mental images for different people, which is somewhat problematic. For some the word urban conjures images of Metropolis or Gotham; hundreds of thousands of people, the inner-city, concrete, high rise buildings, a lack of open space, etc.  To others it might mean anything bigger than a town of a few thousand.  There are official meanings, for particular purposes, of course.  The US census has a complex, somewhat arcane definition that can lead to odd outcomes at times. But it is a definition.