Scientists seeking mites in their dorm rooms

Amy Savage vacuums up dust mites with a shopvac in a Raleigh apartment.

Amy Savage vacuuming my rug in search for dust mites.

“If you give me a ride to the museum, can I come vacuum your floors?” Amy Savage inquired as she popped her head into my office. My office-mate, Clint Penick, was shocked when I said,

“Yes, please!”

At this point Clint was thinking that we had some sort of strange ride-for-chores arrangement going on between the two of us… quickly imagining a “you sort through my insect samples, I’ll wash your dishes” scenario. Amy saved Clint from pondering this too deeply by exclaiming,

“I sure hope you have dust mites!”

“Me too!” Really, I did. Amy needed them for her class, and I wanted to see what my personal dust mites looked like (since I disappointingly tested negative for forehead mites… more soon on this new project).

Amy came to my house complete with her “field” vest, customized vacuum attachment and ShopVac (the official vacuum of serious insect collectors). It seemed promising as she carefully vacuumed the one rug in my entire apartment in a methodical grid pattern, and then proceeded to sample blankets, couch cushions and the insides of my 60-year-old leather chair. What did she find?

Amy Savage vacuums 60 year old chair in search for dust mitesZip. Nada. Nothing. Zilch. What do you call an entomologist with no bugs in her home? Me. Is there a special category for that? I’m probably one of few people who would willingly welcome six- and (in their second instar) eight-legged friends into my life, and now I am left feeling completely rejected! What is it about my home that makes it uninhabitable (or undesirable) for insects and mites? Is there a personal habit that I have that eliminates them from my home? (While I don’t personally spray pesticides, maybe perhaps my landlord does, or my neighbors, or even previous inhabitants of my apartment?)

While Amy had good intentions of collecting mites, what she was really looking for were dust mites. Amy, along with Rob Dunn, is teaching an honors seminar to NCSU freshman and sophomores that focuses on the broader goals of our lab group: understanding the ecology of where we live. The students are conducting an experiment in their dorm rooms! Rob and Amy are asking the students to “

[t]ake a mites-eye-view of their dorms.” Amy explains that they are asking the students to consider that, “everywhere they go is an ecosystem, not just the forest.” They are studying rugs in dorm rooms as habitat patches for mites. Half the class has a large 20” by 60” piece of carpet and the other half has cut the rug into four equal fragments to be placed in different areas in the dorm room. The questions they have:

details of rug used for experiment, close-up of the fibers

What will be lurking within these fibers by the end of the semester?

Are the habitats that we are providing for the species that live with us similar to the ones we see in the forest?

Are the mite populations larger in the larger pieces of carpet (like a larger swath of forest) versus smaller, segmented environment with more borders to uninhabitable spaces (like small patches of forest leftover from clear-cutting)?

 The experiment will run all semester, and I can’t wait to see what they find out!

By |2016-11-22T13:47:29-05:00February 4th, 2013|

About the Author:

Lea Shell
Lea Shell is an entomologist and educator who devotes her time convincing others just how wonderfully important insects and microbes are to our lives. She enjoys playing with slime mold, ants, GPS units, climate loggers and interviewing scientists about their middle school experiences.

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