(Updated at 3:45 p.m.) Fairfax County residents are itching to understand the culprit behind weird skin reactions, possibly linked to bug bites, that have been reported throughout the D.C. region this summer.
As first reported by Reston Now’s sister site ARLnow, people in Northern Virginia and beyond are finding itchy red marks on their skin that are not quite mosquito bites and may be linked to oak leaf itch mites, an arachnid that’s nearly invisible to the naked eye.
Dr. Amir Bajoghli, a dermatologist who sees patients in McLean and Woodbridge in his Skin & Laser Dermatology offices, says he has seen an increase in the number of patients with this kind of issue, often involving raised red bumps or tiny blisters. The bumps can look like acne and be intensely itchy, similar to poison ivy.
“Because of all the cicadas we had, [the mites] were basically feasting on the eggs,” Bajoghli said, noting the mites can fall from the trees and be carried by wind. “Patients have even been telling me it’s worse than their experience with poison ivy.”
Oak leaf itch mites might cause red welts and affect people not only outdoors, but also indoors, potentially entering through window screens.
They typically feed on the larvae of small flies that form on leaves in oak trees. But local health officials suggest this year’s cicada emergence may be a factor, giving oak leaf itch mites another source of food from the cicada eggs laid in trees.
Still, Fairfax County health officials stressed that there’s no confirmation that the oak leaf itch mite is the cause of the bites, saying “it’s only a suspected cause at this time.”
“Although we are not certain what may be causing these bites, one of the suspected causes is the microscopic Oak Leaf Itch Mite,” Joshua Smith, the environmental health supervisor of the Fairfax County Health Department’s Disease Carrying Insect Program, said in a statement. “This mite has been presumptively associated with itchy bites in other regions of the U.S.”
States from Illinois to Texas have observed apparent outbreaks of the mite throughout recent decades.
“Most puzzling was the lack of any insect being seen or felt during the act of biting,” a research paper on a 2004 outbreak in Kansas noted.
Bajoghli, the dermatologist, recommends hydrocortisone as a starting point for treatment, which people can obtain without a prescription.
If that’s insufficient, doctors and dermatologists can provide prescription-strength remedies. He said over-the-counter antihistamines are also somewhat helpful.
“People can best protect themselves by limiting their time from under infested trees and by immediately removing and laundering clothing and then showering,” Penn State Extension researcher Steve Jacobs wrote in a patient-focused guide.
Whether the skin reactions involve that mite or something else, the Fairfax County Health Department has several recommendations for steps people can take to prevent problems with mosquitoes, ticks, and other pests:
- Use repellents. Products registered with the Environmental Protection Agency and recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have active ingredients that include DEET, IR3535, picaridin, and more.
- Wear long pants and long-sleeve shirts outdoors.
- Shower after outdoor activities, washing away crawling ticks as well as doing a tick check.
- Launder clothes worn for outdoor activities. Ten minutes in the dryer on high heat will kill ticks on clothing.
- Avoid scratching bites. A cold compress or other products may help relieve itchiness.
People with questions and concerns are encouraged to talk with their health care provider.
Deadline to Register for School Vaccine Clinics Today — Students must be registered by 8 p.m. today (Thursday) to get the COVID-19 vaccine at one of the clinics that the Fairfax County Health Department is organizing at Fairfax County high schools from May 25 through June 10. Appointments are open to all students between the ages of 12 and 18. [FCHD]
Civilian Review Panel to Hold Public Forum for Police Chief — The Fairfax County Police Civilian Review Panel will host a virtual public forum on WebEx at 7 p.m. on May 26 to discuss civilian oversight of law enforcement with new Police Chief Kevin Davis. This is the second opportunity that community members will get to question Davis, whose appointment was met with skepticism from local civil rights advocates. [Supervisor Dan Storck/Twitter]
Nats Alter COVID-19 Health Protocols — “The Washington Nationals announced on Wednesday afternoon that starting June 10, Nationals Park will be open to 100% capacity and starting this Friday, fully vaccinated fans will not be required to wear masks/face coverings at games.” [WUSA9]
Leidos to Recruit Laid-Off Employees on Navy Contract — “Fresh off the closing of its $7.1 billion acquisition by Peraton Inc., Chantilly IT company Perspecta Inc. (NYSE: PRSP) noticed layoffs for more than 480 employees tied to an expiring Navy information technology contract. But Leidos Holdings Inc. (NYSE: LDOS) is swooping in to recruit many of those employees as it ramps up the next iteration of that IT contract, that Reston technology company said.” [Washington Business Journal]
Cicadas Swarm Herndon House — “While some in the National Capital region have yet to lay eyes on a single member of the 17-year Brood X and may be feeling cicada envy, Jeff Herge of Herndon, Virginia, invites you to look at his fence…Herge saw his first cicada a few weeks ago, on his windshield wiper. Since then, he’s observed the sights and sounds of the cicadas’ arrival.” [WTOP]
Juneteenth Celebration Coming to Frying Pan Farm Park — Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon will host a free, public Juneteenth celebration on June 19 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Commemorating the anniversary of the day when all enslaved people in the U.S. learned that slavery had been abolished, the event will include a presentation by author Dr. Kelley Fanto Deetz. Interested attendees are advised to sign up in advance to ensure there’s enough food for everyone. [Fairfax County Park Authority]
Photo by Patricia Granholm
The cicadas are here, along with a new rap about the insects from local hip-hop artist MC Bugg-Z.
“Brood X-cellence” is a deep rhyming dive into the entomology, science, and emergence of Brood X, the periodical cicadas that are just now surfacing from their 17-year slumber underground.
Lines like “I have been chilling underground with my friends sippin on root juices” and “It’s a fitness thing, you’re witnessing predator satiation” will certainly have wings flapping and red eyes darting.
The song is written and performed by MC Bugg-Z, who isn’t just any old bug-loving underground hip-hop artist. He’s an entomologist and biologist who works for Fairfax County.
“I’m part of the Fairfax County Health Department’s Division of Environmental Health and, inside the Division of Environmental Health, we have the disease-carrying insects program,” Andy Lima said. “That’s my normal, real-life job.”
Lima has been writing and recording underground hip-hop since his college days in the mid-2000s with a focus on intelligent lyric writing.
“It’s more about the rhymes than the beats,” Lima said. “I love to convey the knowledge about the things I love and the world I know…by putting it into hip-hop song form.”
In Lima’s case, that’s bugs, and this isn’t his first foray into the emerging genre of insect rap.
In 2016, he released “Zika 101” about protecting oneself from disease-carrying mosquitoes. In 2018, there was “Tick-Check 1-2” about checking for ticks and avoiding Lyme Disease, followed a year later by “West Nile Story.”
While cicadas are not known to carry disease, Lima couldn’t skip the opportunity for a new song about a bug.
“Brood X-cellence” is a remix or sequel of sorts to a cicada rap he wrote back in 2004, when the brood last emerged. He was a student at Indiana University back then, and the din of the cicadas could actually be heard in the background of the recording.
“I was going to just re-release that one this year and just felt like there were things about the song that I wanted to change, new information that I wanted to include and, also, some errors,” Lima said. “I’ve learned some stuff over the past 17 years…Now, the focus is much more on the biology of it as opposed to the spectacle itself.”
When he writes songs, Lima takes a reverse-engineered approach. He thinks about how he wants to end a line and then finds a rhyme to match it.
“I don’t shy away from the scientific words because they are multi-syllables,” Lima said. “You can often find a way to rhyme them or, even, define some of these terms [in the rhyme]…like predator satiation.”
It took about two weeks to write, re-work, and record “Brood X-cellence.” The beat was provided by Kelton Williams, another Fairfax County employee who Lima met while helping with COVID-19 emergency response.
“He’s a great musician,” said Lima. “As soon as I heard [his beat], I thought ‘Oh man, this is going down.'”
The main takeaway that Lima wants folks to get from the song is that this cicada takeover is an incredibly rare and amazing occurrence.
“It’s a fleeting event, a miracle of nature,” he said. “It really only occurs in the eastern half of the United States and nowhere else in the world…It’s just so rare that the public is kind of overrun with insects.”
He hopes his bug rap educates, entertains, and allows folks to have a little fun after a difficult year.
With the temperatures warming, particularly in the evening, the cicadas are expected to come out of the ground en masse within a matter of days, looking to play their own song.
“We’re really going to see the surge that’s just beyond,” Lima said. “So, hopefully my song is well-timed.”
If the prospect of trillions of cicadas emerging from the earth fills you with excitement, Fairfax County’s official tourism organization has just the game for you.
Visit Fairfax has introduced a Cicada Stroll Bingo card where participants can mark off squares when they take photos of a cicada at certain locations for a chance to win insect-inspired prizes.
“While some may view the arrival of the Brood X cicadas as a nuisance, we here at Visit Fairfax choose to look at it as an exceptional opportunity for visitors and residents to witness one of Earth’s most remarkable natural occurrences – and have fun at the same time!” Visit Fairfax President and CEO Barry Biggar wrote in the press release.
Suggested sites to spot cicadas range from pieces of public art like Patrick Doughtery’s “Bird in Hand” in Reston Town Square Park to the Sully Historic Site in Chantilly. Other boxes to check include county hiking trails, shopping centers, a brewery or winery, near water, and at a restaurant (hopefully, not on your food).
Anyone who fills out two squares in their bingo card, plus the traditional “free” square in the center, can upload the card and accompanying photos for a chance to get a Cicada Care package with items like a custom cicada facemask.
Winners will be announced in May, and some of the best photos will be featured on the county’s blog and social media.
The Cicada Bingo Card was conceived as a way to showcase “road trip travel” and encourage folks to visit outdoor county attractions safely in a “quirky kind of way,” Visit Fairfax spokesperson Ali Morris says.
She adds that this is also another way to encourage residents to visit and support their favorite local business as they recover from an extremely rough last year.
The D.C. region is expected to be the epicenter for the emergence of Brood X, a brood of cicadas that emerge only every 17 years. They spend their larva years underground, which is anywhere from two to 17 years, chowing down on tree roots.
There could be millions of them buzzing around in the area in the early summer. They’re extremely loud, thanks to the sound that the males produce by rubbing their legs together to attract potential mating partners.
While they are also big as far as insects go, they’re completely harmless. In fact, their long life cycles and the fact that they are so numerous are really their only defense mechanisms from predators.
The Brood X cicadas are expected to hit peak emergence in Northern Virginia in late May through early June. While they’ll be visible and audible everywhere, parks and other natural settings will be the best place to see and hear them.
They are also edible, to an extent.
“A few are not likely to hurt pets but too many could cause digestive issues,” Fairfax County Park Authority naturalist Tammy Schwab told Reston Now last month. “They are edible by people if you’re brave enough to try it.”
Photo courtesy Visit Fairfax
The cicadas are coming.
17 years after their last appearance, swarms of cicadas known collectively as periodical cicada Brood X are preparing to stage a sequel this spring, with the D.C. area as the epicenter of a natural phenomenon that will encompass 15 states across the eastern and midwestern U.S.
Tammy Schwab, a naturalist and education and outreach manager for the Fairfax County Park Authority, says the insects are expected to emerge in the county around the middle of May, when the ground temperature reaches about 64 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Cicadas are special because of their extremely long life cycle,” Schwab told Tysons Reporter by email. “Cicadas spend 2-17 years as a larva underground feeding on the roots of trees. Most other insects have much shorter life spans.”
According to the National Wildlife Federation, adult periodical cicadas are black with orange underneath. They are just over an inch in length and boast clear, “membranous,” black-veined wings that span three inches across.
These cicadas are different from annual cicadas, which live underground for two to five years before emerging as adults, typically between May and September. Because their life cycles aren’t as closely synchronized as periodical cicadas, some annual cicadas appear every year.
Fairfax County last saw Brood X — one of 15 periodical cicada broods in the U.S. — at the scale anticipated this spring in 2004, but a handful of the insects were spotted locally in 2017.
“As part of the cicada survival strategy some of each brood can emerge between 1 and 4 years early in case some catastrophe were to destroy all the cicadas in a given emergence,” Schwab explained.
They're coming! This is the year of the 17-year cicada in our area. There will be trillions of them in early summer. They are harmless. They are loud. They are high in protein, if you're into that. They don't social distance. It's a phenomenon of nature to be enjoyed. Can't wait! pic.twitter.com/WR5qWCXq3m
— Fairfax County Parks (@fairfaxparks) March 4, 2021
In comparison, Schwab says “millions” of cicadas could blanket the D.C. region this year, though the numbers could vary across different areas depending on how much land development has occurred over the past 17 years.
Both adult and larval cicadas depend on trees for food, so they tend to be more prevalent in forested areas. However, people in more developed residential neighborhoods might notice them sooner, since the ground warms more quickly in open spaces than in the woods, according to Schwab.
She says the loss of tree cover to development “will definitely decrease populations,” but reforestation prior to an emergence could result in an increase. Fairfax County had stream bank stabilization projects at Snakeden Branch in Reston, Difficult Run in Oakton, Accotink Creek, and Cinnamon Creek in the Wolf Trap area in 2003, the year before Brood X’s last emergence.
“It would be very interesting to see if these project areas had any effect on the population,” Schwab said.
While the appearance of millions of loud, winged insects may sound alarming, cicadas are harmless for humans. The most notable impact will be on newly planted trees, which can be damaged by cicada egg laying.
Schwab advises residents to wait until the fall before planting new trees or utilize insect netting to protect their branches.
She also says people should watch what their pets are eating.
“A few are not likely to hurt pets but too many could cause digestive issues,” Schwab said. “They are edible by people if you’re are brave enough to try it.”
Photo courtesy Fairfax County Park Authority
Hot Weather Continues Today — The DC area had weather hotter than nearly anywhere else in the country Wednesday, including a record high of 91 at Dulles International Airport. Temperatures are expected to be similar today and Friday. Fairfax County Fire and Rescue has issued information to help people avoid heat-related illness. [Washington Post]
Bicycle Commuting Up in DC, But Not Here — A report shows that the nation’s capital now has the third-highest percentage of bicycle commuters among major cities in the nation, 4 percent. The number has nearly doubled from 2010. However, in Fairfax County, only about 0.3 percent of commuters ride to work. The difference is in part due to lacking infrastructure, says the Fairfax Alliance for Better Biking. [WTOP]
Cicadas Making Early Entrance — Thousands of the bugs have already turned up in the region, four years ahead of their regular schedule. The 17-year cycle on Brood X means this is just a precursor of a major emergence in 2021. [WAMU]
SLHS Track Teams Tops Again — The boys and girls track teams at South Lakes High School have won their conference championships. It’s the seventh title in a row for the girls and the fourth for the boys. [Press Release]
Commentary: Increased Class Sizes Will Hurt — An advocate for Class Size Matters says Fairfax County Public Schools’ plan to increase average class size by half a student per room will have “a negative impact on students’ ability to learn and succeed, and on teachers’ ability to teach.” An online petition is opposing the increase. [Reston Connection]