Among the many creatures, big and small, that come alive at a period time of year are the red velvet mites, the largest members of the mite family. For most of the year, Trombidium grandissimum reside under the surface, preferring the dark, cool confines of top soil to the warmth and light above. But come monsoon, they emerge for one principle reason: to ᴍᴀᴛᴇ. And this is where things start to get interesting.
Males begin by identifying a location for what some scientists call a “love nest”. Once the spot has been identified, a male goes about creating his boudoir from fragments of bark, branch and leaves, adorned with drops of s̴p̴e̴r̴m̴. Next, he spins a trail to his nest so potential ᴍᴀᴛᴇs don’t lose their way, and when his house is finally complete, he waits patiently at the door for lady visitors to exhibit interest. When a female arrives, the male velvet mite breaks into dance, moving its legs and body from side to side. If his moves are moving enough, she enters his domain, picks up the small sacs of s̴p̴e̴r̴m̴, ꜰᴇʀᴛɪʟɪᴢᴇs her eggs, and moves on in a ᴍᴀᴛter of minutes.
As with many fish and amphibians, ꜰᴇʀᴛɪʟɪsation with red velvet mites is external so there is no ᴄᴏᴘᴜʟᴀᴛɪᴏɴ involved. But that doesn’t mean competition isn’t ꜰɪᴇʀᴄᴇ. If a rival male stumbles upon a prepared nest, he will trash it completely, and deposit his own s̴p̴e̴r̴m̴ over the nest.
Red velvet mites look quite ominous in close-up. Their bright red colour and furry bodies bring to mind ᴅᴇᴀᴅly tarantula spiders—they also have eight legs—but in reality they are entirely ʜᴀʀᴍless to humans and no larger than a pin-head. Unfortunately, some communities believe that they have medicinal value, and that consumption boosts the ʟɪʙɪᴅᴏ. Others believe they help reverse ᴘᴀʀᴀʟʏsɪs, and for these reasons, the insects are collected and sold in monsoon markets, especially around north India.
This is a pity, because red velvet mites play a significant role in our ecosystem. During the larvae stage, the baby mites are parasitic and latch on to grasshoppers and other insects, keeping their numbers in check. As adults, they eat small spiders, and eggs and larvae of beetles, snails, and other wingless insects that are a ʙᴀɴᴇ to farmers.
So, if you do notice one of these furry creatures scrambling along in the monsoon, don’t swat it away: it’s probably a male, scavenging for bits and bobs to build the perfect love nest.