Mites in Isopod Setups
Mites get a really, really bad rap. This is almost entirely due to the reptile mites native to Africa that are notorious for plaguing snakes (and other reptiles). There are also mites that are parasitic and harmful to both plants and other kinds animals. However, many of these mites are specifically tailored to groups of animals, and in some cases, specific species of animals. Out of the 48,000 species of mite recorded in the world, the majority are amount the group of animals called detrivores. Isopods are detrivores as well; these groups of animals form a role in the world consuming the “detritus” or dead, decaying matter and cycle it back into the environment.
There are two common types of mite that appear and establish themselves in setups, grain (sometimes called wood) mites and soil mites. Many keepers inquire about spider mites and predatory mites as well, however these mites are rarely (if ever) found in setups, as an isopod tub will not meet their needs to thrive. We’ll discuss them later. When discussing mites in this article, we will be using common names rather than scientific names, because while there are many species that fall under the umbrella of common names the treatment, risks, and behavior of these are relatively the same.
Where do mites come from? Mites may be introduced with food offered to isopods, leaves, substrate, or come in with the packaging of isopods themselves. However, the way that mites most often find their way into setups is the same as other pests: sneaking in through windows and door cracks from the great outdoors. It’s an unhappy chance typically when mites find their way in, but it’s a chance that occurs far too often for the comfort of many keepers.
Wood mites are what people find most frequently in their setups. These mites are similar to springtails, but are round, white, and bulbous. The easiest way to differentiate them between springtails is they don’t jump and instead rapidly crawl around. Wood mites are also called grain mites, due to their attraction to grain-based food, the most commonly of which used in the isopod hobby is fish flakes. Grain mites may also be attracted to decaying vegetables in setups, and need a very moist environment to thrive. Grain mites are typically harmless, and may come and go with the health of the bioactive environment. They’re pretty creepy looking though, so most people (understandably) want to be rid of them. The introduction of springtails will outcompete the grain mites, but to get rid of them faster there are other methods that can be utilized as well. Reducing the overall moisture of the tub and not using grain based food sources encourages the mites to leave and seek homes elsewhere; if the battle with mites is long term this is one of the few instances we encourage removing uneaten food after 24 hours.
Very rarely, wood mites actually can be harmful to isopods, and this is specifically in large species that are kept dry- the Spanish giant Porcellio. When the setup is dried out, rather than leaving, the mites have been documented to seek refuge on the undersides of the isopods themselves. Wood mites themselves are not parasitic and do not prey on the isopods, but this behavior is very stressful and may cause the isopods to abort their eggs or the isopods themselves to die. In the even that this occurs, a different method must be utilized to removed the mites from the setup. Putting the isopods themselves is ineffective, as the mites are attached to them, so instead the best course of action is to wet down the tub to release the mites from the isopods. The mites can then be baited out with moist vegetables, such as cucumber or squash, or even a grain based food source. When the food source has an amount of mites flocking to them, remove the food source, mites and all, and repeat the task of baiting them out. Once a large portion of the population has been removed, it is safe to attempt to allow the setup to dry out, or even put the isopods in a new setup.
The next most common mite that isopod owners encounter is soil mites. Soil mites are utterly, completely, 100% harmless. They’re still creepy as all can be, though. Soil mites are another detrivore, eating decaying matter, and will typically bloom in the first few weeks-months of a setup establishing or cycling. Soil mites are a bit rude; they don’t stay in the setup with their roommates the isopods like grain mites do. They’ll crawl along the lid, outside of the tub, and even the shelf. Again, this is creepy but doesn’t mean anything is wrong, it’s just a behavior of soil mites to ascertain what their environment has to offer. Another alarming aspect of soil mites is that they are often discovered on the dead bodies of isopods, and people believe that they were the cause of the isopods’ deaths. Soil mites do not harm isopods in any way. They are fulfilling their role as cleaners and breaking down dead bodies – they are no more the cause of isopod deaths than an eagle is the cause of a dead deer on the side of the road it is eating. To get rid of soil mites, the treatment is similar to grain mites, but the most effective method is to bait out the mites with vegetable and to wipe down surfaces the mites are flocking, both inside and outside of the tub. Soil mites are a problem that is solved on their own, as they will bloom initially in population and all but disappear within a few weeks in healthy setups.
An additional mite that often comes up is predatory mites. Predatory mites are NOT reptile mites. Predatory mites are used by the agricultural industry to keep pest invertebrates, such as grain mites and aphids, in check. Predatory mites cannot feed on isopods – the outer shell is too thick for them to do so (even in mancae). It is highly unlikely to find naturally occurring predatory mites in a setup. The next most common question asked about predatory mites is if they can be used to keep grain mites in check. While this is a purpose they are used for in agriculture, and they are commercially available for this use, it isn’t very efficient or recommended.
Spider mites is a mite that some people are familiar with. However, existing mites in isopod setups are mistakenly ID’d as spider mites because all mites have a spider-like appearance with their bulbous body and long legs. Spider mites are named such for their behavior of spinning webs underneath the leaves of plants, not for how they look. Spider mites are a parasitic mite preying on plants specifically, not other animals. Spider mites will not seek out isopod tubs, and if they are somehow introduced, they will quickly leave of their own accord because they need living plants to survive. In the case of a bioactive tank, there are treatments for spider mites, but any tank inhabitants should be removed prior to using sprays to kill the mites, and not returned for at least a month.
Mites are creepy visitors, but that’s honestly their biggest sin. Only one mite is known to prey on reptiles specifically, and they’re nearly always harmless to isopods. While initially stressful (because who wants bugs where there aren’t supposed to be bugs?) mites are a visitor that are easily managed.