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COLUMN: Those pesky red bugs

The Bolton family cemetery, north of Ellerbe.
J.A. Bolton

Seems during the warmer months, folks want to get out and enjoy the outdoors. Why, some work in their yards and gardens or hike on their favorite trails, while other’s fish along lakes and streams, or even pick berries. Whatever the outdoor activity, these are perfect hiding places for red bugs.

Down here in the south, most people refer to chiggers as red bugs. An older friend of mine used to call them jiggers. You know, them tiny little dickens that can hardly be seen but can inflict a lot pain and itching.

Red bugs are not insects but mites. They are arachnids, which means they are in the same family as spiders, scorpions, and closely related to ticks.

These chiggers, or whatever you want to call them, are all over the world. They are found in large groups on leaves, grass, weeds, and especially pine straw.

It seems strange, but it ain’t the adult ones that attack you, no sir, it’s them babies in the larvae stage that you want to watch out for. ‘Bout the only way to see these rascals is with a magnifying glass. Some folks say you can place a white plate or a piece of cardboard straight up in your yard or woods. You leave it there for a few minutes, and if’n you got red bugs, they will show up at the top as small red or orange dots resembling a tick. 

So, why does it seem some people get bitten by red bugs more than others? One reason, red bugs prefer thin skin or soft skin like women or children usually have. I reckon I’m one of those thick-skinned people ‘cause I don’t usually get many bites. It’s ain’t no bad idea for anyone going outdoors to spray some type of insect repellent on their shoes, socks, and pants. An old tried and true method to keep from getting bitten is to place some powdered sulfur in a sock and sprinkle it on your shoes and clothes. This works well if’n you can stand the smell.

A good way to get really eat up with red bugs is to sit on the ground in an infested area. In a few hours, you’ll begin to itch, and little red blotches appear all over your body. No, red bugs in this country won’t kill you, but I’ll guarantee they will get your attention.

Ways to prevent red bugs from biting you are to wear long pants, long-sleeve shirts and high-top boots. Spray with bug repellent when you leave home and again every few hours.

When I was little, my family liked to pick blackberries and plums. What better place for red bugs than in a briar patch or the weeds around plum bushes. Granddaddy always kept a soda bottle of kerosene (corked with a corncob) on the back porch. We would dab some on our skin and our clothes to help prevent from being eat up with red bugs.


Another way not to get red bugs is to remove all your clothes when you get home from being in redbug territory. Either leave them outside in the sun or place them in the washer with very hot water. Then, jump in the shower and scrub your body good with soap and hot water. We used homemade lye soap or octagon soap back in the day and it worked well.

Why, if’n you don’t have a lot of water around, apply rubbing alcohol on your body to help prevent a lot of bites, especially around your ankles and legs. Another tip is to make a trip to the ocean and take a dip in that warm salt water.

There are many lotions, ointments and creams on the market today to help stop the itching and help dry up the whelps. But sometimes it just takes time for these red bug bites to heal. Above all, resist the urge to scratch because you might get a secondary infection, which will be worse than the bite.

Several weeks ago, my whole family visited our old family cemetery above Ellerbe. The cemetery was fairly clean of bushes and tall grass. We strolled through the tombstones and graves, taking down names and dates for a good 15 minutes before my daughter’s family headed back home.

My wife and I got back home probably around 4 p.m. That night, while we were watching TV, she started itching and red whelps started to appear on her ankles and legs. She applied all types of anti-itch creams, but they didn’t do much good.

The next day my daughter called and said that she had itchy red whelps all over her legs. She said, “You might need to check the beds at the old house for bed bugs.” We did, but it won’t no bed bugs, but them red bugs at the cemetery that was the culprits.

Chemicals can be sprayed to keep the red bug population down, although it might take several applications. But, as the temperature of the ground lowers and the first frost comes this fall, those red bugs will either die or bury themselves in the ground. 

So, to avoid those pesky red bugs, you just might want to plan your next hike or outdoor excursion later in the year.

J.A. Bolton is author of “Just Passing Time,” co-author of “Just Passing Time Together,” and just released a new book, “Southern Fried: Down-Home Stories.” Contact him at ja@jabolton.com. 


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