As dark clouds would gather and break into spectacular thunderstorms of rain during the onset of monsoon, I would rush to my garden as a kid, looking for red moving spots in the lush green grass.
My first encounter with the Red Velvet Mites (the name is a perfect portrayal of their external appearance which is velvety and dark red) was in the backyard of my home when my younger brother pointed to the scarlet dots on the ground. When we picked them up, they curled into round velvety balls. For our petite awareness, we had made a discovery!
From that day on, these brightly colored arachnids (family trombidiidae) became our rain-anthem, until recently when I noticed their sightings plunging.
Who is the Seafarer’s Bride?
Although cosmopolitan in their location, the red velvet mite species (Trombidium grandissimum) is widely prevalent in the northern parts of the Indian subcontinent. It is known by various alternate names: Bir Bahuti, Birbaboti, Scarlet Fly, Lady Fly, Velvet Buchi (Telugu term commonly used in Hyderabad, India), ‘Aarudra Purugu’ (another Telugu word from around Hyderabad, India, because one sees them only in the season ‘Aarudra’), ‘Sadhaba Bohu'(Oriya term meaning ‘Bride of the Seafarer’ owing to the red velvet coat and beautiful looks), Rani Keeda (Hindi/Urdu: Queen Mite) and “Gokal Gaay” or “Mama Ni Gaay” in Gujarat.
The Red Velvet Mite
These mites are visible in large numbers early in the monsoon season and so are also called rain mites in the subcontinent. They are found in almost all soils, especially alluvial soil. They are generally very small, usually less than 1mm in size. They dig in sand and hide for long dry spells before the rains hit the ground.
The presence of red velvet mites is extremely important to the environment. These mites are part of a community of soil arthropods that is critical in terms of rates of decomposition in woodlands and in maintaining the structure of the entire ecosystem. By feeding on insects that eat fungi and bacteria, they stimulate the decomposition process. And when they are removed from the area, many critical processes in the soil go much slower.
Visible as Red dots in the grass
Eight legged Bir Bahuti A curled-up Rain Mite
Their numbers have been going down due to the speed at which we are urbanizing our natural habitats. Another curse for the decline in its natural population is their rampant use in traditional Indian medicine, especially by the tribes of Chattisgarh and Orissa, for the treatment of various diseases.
Its oil, in combination with other herbs, is used for healing ten different diseases including paralysis, urinogenital disorders, malaria etc. It is collected in bulk during rainy season and used round the year. More than that, Trombidium is used most popularly as an aphrodisiac, known as Indian Viagra.
“From the year 1990, I am observing over 50 spots in different parts of Chhattisgarh and Orissa for its natural population. Population is decreasing in most of these spots. As more information about this velvet mite is coming through new research, its problem will increase”, writes Pankaj Oudhia, Agricultural scientist who has been researching on Trombidium for a long time.
“I tried for large scale rearing and commercial production of this mite so that the pressure on nature can be reduced. The research is on.”
The Red Trade
The traditional healers of the region purchase the female mite from villagers for Rs.25 for a 100 mites for preparing the drugs. There could be other possible uses of this mite but such uses are not documented. The rates in the national market soar up to Rs.10, 000-12,000 per kg. At the time of droughts, the rates go even higher. Of course the primary collectors are unaware of their end price, the reason why they are selling these mites at the same price for almost a decade.
The oil derived from Trombidium
It is only a twenty-day business in the whole year where majority of the mites are collected from the Chhattisgarh and Orissa region. Due to medicinal uses of these creatures in these parts, they are facing the problem of over exploitation. According to one study, the world demand of Trombidium oil is fulfilled by Chhattisgarh alone.
These mites are sent off to the local herb markets of Chhattisgarh and Orissa. The traders purchase these rain mites in bulk and dry it in sunlight. After drying, they sell it to Varanasi market of Uttar Pradesh, famous for rain insect oil extraction units.
Drained out of color: Dried Rain Mites
What the collectors say
The traditional healers, to maintain the population of the rain insect in nature, collect it from only one direction in a year. Next year they change their location of collection. This rotational collection helps in maintaining the natural population. This way, the activities of healers and natives had never disturbed the population of these mites.
The imbalance has surfaced from the new collectors who are under the pressure of collecting maximum mites in lesser time to earn more. This interrupts the replenishing cycle the traditional collectors have been following which has led to a severe decline in their numbers.
In other parts of the world, Trombidium is known to exist but it is not used in medicine. “In India, no one is working on traditional medicinal uses of this mite. I personally feel that there is a need to take immediate conservation measures for this mite and also to pose a ban on its collection and marketing”, said Pankaj Oudhia.
Trade communities know nothing or very little about these mites. There is no check on how rampantly they are being devoured to satisfy human primal urges. The state government must step in to address the concern on this issue. Conservation policies must be chalked out in a manner that their balance is restored while their use in medicine is also not hampered.
These mites have no threat from their immediate nature. Their distinctive color and peculiar taste keep predators away and they never bite humans. It is ironical that humans are its biggest enemy.
It is time we shed capitalism which is strangling the population of these beautiful mites rather than partaking in their pre-mature extinction, which would be a shame for a country like India known to harbor rich and diverse fauna.