Our exterminator used three different pesticides, or more specifically acaricides, in our house. One was a “growth regulator” that prevents the mites from molting or reproducing (Williams 2007 pers. com). The other two contained the pyrethroids deltamethrin and pyrethrin (used in flea collars), which kill on contact. A pyrethroid is a man-made chemical that mimics natural pyrethrin found in chrysanthemums, but is less expensive and more stable. To bugs they are poisons that keep open sodium channels in the neuronal membranes so they depolarize and cause paralysis (Ware and Whitacre 2004). (Ironic that in Japan mums are a symbol of long life.) Other active ingredients in one of the pyrethroids were piperonyl butoxide and N-octyl bicycloheptene dicarboximide. The former prevents the mite’s liver from ridding the pyrethroid from the body, making the pyrethroid deadly (Ware and Whitacre 2004). The latter is used to slow its enzymatic breakdown, enhancing its potency (Deer 2002). In the backyard, bifenthrin, another pyrethroid, and orthoboric acid, part of a weather-resistant bait, were used. On the day after the treatment, all the mites were miraculously gone. On the minus side, the pyrethroids kill good insects too, like bees, for which I found evidence.
Other acaricides, such as organophosphates and carbamates, act at the neuromuscular junction (where nerve impulses instruct muscles to contract) to inhibit the activity of cholinesterase. This protein breaks down a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine leaving the nerves constantly depolarized (Mullens et al. 2004).
These mites have been found on temperate regions in all six continents (Smiley 1991). There are many factors that will help their population to expand:
- Global warming: Mites like it warm and moist! They appear not to survive for more than a few days in low humidity (Jacobs 2006).
- Increases in human population lead to more building resulting in more nests on homes. The fact that birds often return to the same nest year after year may compound the problem. Moreover, fewer trees may lead birds to reuse nests, and less nesting materials may lead to recycling of infested materials. Our pest inspector said that what happened to us was quite common (Williams 2007 pers. com.). I have already been asked by the pest company to act as a reference to another family who has an even worse, house-wide infestation. More buildings also mean people living closer together, so mites have more potential victims. We felt badly that our neighbor was itching too.
- The desire to use less and/or less potent pesticides as we learn more about the harmful effects. This leaves one open to reinfestation since complete bird proofing is nearly impossible. Case in point, we had a reoccurrence in our backyard from a family of doves living on the pergola. There is a fine line, or maybe no line, between killing the mites and harm to the host and other creatures nearby.
- Mite resistance to certain acaricides: Researchers at UC Riverside have discovered extreme resistance to pyrethrin in mites infesting commercial poultry in Southern California. And some resistance to organophosphates and carbamates was also found (Mullens et al. 2004).
- The fact that the NFM is a smart, resourceful, and adaptable creature increases its chances of survival. They’ve evolved to use us as a quick meal (Carroll and Young 1994). And who can say that they will never evolve to live on non-bird hosts? One study of the chicken mite that employed an in vitro feeding system showed that while most first generation mites died, subsequent ones were able to survive and reproduce (Bruneau et al. 2001).
- The recent organic farming movement towards free-range chicken makes the mites more difficult to control (McDevitt et al. 2006). And most folks probably don’t want their chickens sprayed with pesticides either.
- Some factors that will hurt them include:
- Decreased wild bird host population (Shwartz 2005).
- Adaptive bird behavior: Birds have developed anti-mite strategies such as alternate colony usage (Chapman and George 1991). Many also build nests from fresh green materials. The Nest Protection Hypothesis states that birds have evolved to use the insecticide abilities of plants to protect against ectoparasites (Clark 1991). Whether or not that is true, new nests certainly slow the mites down to give the nestlings a head start (Pacejka et al. 1996).
- New technologies in biochemistry used in acaricides, along with a more detailed knowledge of mite biology, will help us to eradicate them. There is revival in the latter currently underway in Europe due to acaricide resistance in D. gallinae (Mullens et al. 2004). Last year Scottish researchers developed a proteinase inhibitor mixture that killed chicken mites in the lab (McDevitt 2006). In the UK, there is a proposal to create a mite vaccine for poultry (Anonymous B 2006).
- More public knowledge via the Internet helps householders diagnose and respond more quickly. The County of San Diego’s Department of Environmental Health has a useful website. There is even a site solely dedicated to NFM called birdmites.org.
So which way will the scale tilt? I believe these factors will balance out and that the mites will survive, but not overpopulate. Just like the coevolution of the common cold, it is not in the parasite’s interest to kill the host. Over time, parasites become less destructive and the hosts become more tolerant (Sykes 2007). That is why the cold viruses and the mites who kill die off, and the weak ones survive to eat another day. And the silver lining could be that parasites may enhance the future health of the species since only the strongest birds will survive and reproduce (Loye and Carroll 1995).
To close, Professor Proctor’s husband, Dr. David Walter, a mite expert as well, formerly from the University of Queensland’s Zoology and Entomology Department, said “I feel like a Medieval Monk, keeping the illuminated manuscripts safe during the Dark Ages”. An on-line article describes him as “trying to keep the subject alive as science is swept by molecular mania” (Anonymous A 2000). I hoped to have contributed by lighting a small candle.
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