Local residents are falling prey to a mysterious rash of bug bites and, as of Monday, scientists and state officials still weren’t positive of the culprit.

The primary suspect is the oak leaf gall itch mite causing nickel to quarter-sized bumps on itchy victims across Northern Illinois.

Dr. Frederic Miller, entomology research associate at the Morton Arboretum, said the pattern of bites in Illinois mirrors an outbreak of itch mites which attacked Kansas and Nebraska in the fall of 2004.

There, scientists identified the tiny pests as the oak leaf gall, an intrusive bug, 1/125th of an inch in size, which enters abnormal growths on oak trees called galls in search of fly larvae, called midges, to eat, according to the Kansas State University research and extension.

The female mite uses a neurotoxin in her saliva to paralyze prey before feasting. That same toxin causes itchiness in humans.

“We’re kind of learning as we go along,” said Miller, who has never seen anything like this in his 20 years in Illinois. “It’s hard to speculate why they’re biting humans; that’s what’s puzzling about it.”

According to the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH), the mites drop off oak trees when their foods source runs out and sometimes accidentally fall on humans, and the mites can’t live indoors because they need insect larvae to survive.

Melanie Arnold, spokeswoman for the IDPH, said the itch mite species was yet to be identified as of Monday.

Sticky traps were set to catch the pests and some samples were caught, allowing scientists to identify the genus as pyemotes.

“We believe it’s the oak gall itch mite and [discovering the genus] confirms we’re on the right track,” Arnold said.

Arnold said it’s difficult to speculate when the species will be identified; it depends on when the IDPH can obtain a quality sample directly off a tree leaf.

Identifying the species involves counting the number of hairs on the mite with a microscope and sticky traps tend to remove hairs from samples.

The IDPH sent a specimen to an entomologist at the University of Nebraska who is currently trying to identify it. Only a few people in the country can identify a mite’s species, Arnold said. There are over 45,000 different species of mites, according to an IDPH press release.

Only in a few rare cases has a person been hospitalized from the bites and there is no known instance of death from itch mite bites, according to the release.

Itching, befuddled

“The only thing I could really tell you is I’ve been bit by them and they itch really bad,” said Riverside Forester Michael Collins, who estimates his bite count at 40. “In my opinion, it’s worse than poison ivy.”

Collins said “everyone” has the bites in the village forestry department and, in his experience, no treatment available could stop the itching.

Al Kitzer, superintendent of operations for Brookfield Public Works, said only a few village employees have contracted the bug bites.

“I don’t think it has been that big of a problem [in Brookfield],” Kitzer said. “It’s more of a nuisance than anything.”

He called back later that day to say his wife was bitten and the wounds were becoming painful, almost like a spider bite.

“I don’t know what caused the influx of itch mites,” Kitzer said. “A lot of people are still mystified by it.”

Sondra Katzen in media relations at Brookfield Zoo, said a few employees have contracted the bites, but she wasn’t sure of an exact count. A number of customers have called the zoo to inquire about the mites, she said.

“I wish we could put up a big bubble [around the zoo] because there’s not much you can do,” Katzen said. “If you’re outside, you’re going to get them.”

Doug Deuchler, 60, an Oak Park resident who works part-time at the Brookfield Zoo said he got about eight bites, probably while working at the zoo. A few employees there have fallen ill from the bites, feeling dizzy and nauseous.

“They’re bizarre,” Deuchler said describing the wounds. “A number of guys [at the zoo] have been complaining about them.”

Karen Baribeault, 49, of Brookfield was practically eaten alive last week, contracting between 30 and 40 bites while sitting in her yard. The bites covered her back, trunk, shoulders and arms, so she speculated the bugs were congregating in the family’s patio furniture.

Her husband, parents and a number of neighbors were also itching feverishly after spending time outside last week.

The couple lived in the south before moving to Brookfield and compared itch mite bites to other southern critters like chiggers and fleas.

“It was a surprise to all of us having been bitten like that,” Baribeault’s husband, Ross Lee, said. “Over the years, I’ve been bitten by a lot of insects, and this ranks pretty high up there. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.”

Lee only had 15 bites. Baribeault thinks she was hit harder because she has sensitive skin and wore the same pair of shorts two days in a row.

“I think a whole damn load of critters were in those shorts,” she said. “I put them back on and I think that’s why I got attacked. … It was a lot of itching. It would wake you up at night.”

She’s had to cut down on outside activities in fear of getting more bites.

Jim Semelka, village forester for Oak Park, said he has about 18 bites but believes he got them at his home in LaGrange. He’s baffled though because no oak trees grow near his home.

He hasn’t heard many reported cases of itch mite bites in the village’s forestry department and wonders if it’s related to Oak Park’s small periodical cicada emergence this summer.

“I’m going to plead cicada,” Semelka said. “We didn’t have those around [Oak Park] either. Maybe we do have itch mites, but none of my guys have them and we’ve been doing tree work all week.”

Dr. George Tsoutsias of the emergency room staff at Adventist La Grange Memorial Hospital, said an average of 35 patients came in with itch mite bites between Friday, Aug. 10 and Monday.

The number of reported cases was trending downward towards the end of last week. He wasn’t sure if that was because the mites were biting less or people were becoming more educated and learning to treat the bites at home.

Tsoutsias said the bites range from a small pimple to a large swelling the size of a nickel. They have a clear center with a surrounding red ring. The appearance is similar to the markings from lyme disease. Sometimes bites blister.

He said there isn’t much of a way to prevent bites since the bugs are so small, unless you wear long, tight-knit clothes at all times, in a closed environment with a thick lotion on.

Tsoutsias prescribed an antihistamine for the itchiness and a hydrocortisone cream to reduce inflammation in most bite cases and said most patients recover in 10 to 14 days.

In more severe cases-where patients have red streaks going towards their chest, a spiked temperature and pus forming in the bites-it’s necessary to see a doctor immediately, because a secondary infection may have formed. Usually these infections stem from excessive itching, which opens the wounds and lets bacteria in.

“These things will bite anything in their area,” Tsoutsias said. “Unless you’re completely isolated, there’s no way to protect yourself.”