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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

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Build-A-Mite Construction Site

Mites come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Some are no bigger than a needle's point.

Many mites are harmful to humans, livestock, pets, or wildlife. Others only pester crops or munch on dead skin cells, insect debris, or microbes such as bacteria.

Some mites even have usefulness as natural weed controls. But did you know that mites aren't insects? They're more closely related to spiders, ticks, and scorpions, which belong to group called arachnids (say "a-RACK-nids").

Mites have wide-ranging appetites. Of special interest are mite species that feed on crop plants—often at the farmer's expense!

To view and identify them, Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists have begun using a low-temperature scanning electron microscope. It's known as an LT-SEM, for short.

It works by shooting an invisible beam of electrons onto a mite specimen. The electrons that bounce off its body are then recorded on a special cathode ray tube similar to those in television sets.

The resulting image—especially with "artificial" color added—can be quite startling.

Shown here is a yellow mite crawling among fungi growing on a citrus plant.

It's just one of the many high-magnification, psuedo-color photos produced by Eric Erbe, a botanist (retired), and Chris Pooley, a computer specialist. Pooley works at ARS' Nematology Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland.

There, Erbe developed a special holder for steadying mite specimens while they're frozen in liquid nitrogen at -320 degrees Farenheit (That's 352 degrees below the temperature at which water turns to ice!).

This technique allows him to photograph the critters up to 50,000 times their actual size. It also avoids squashing the mites, which can happen when glass slides are used for light microscope examination.

Using these photos, scientists known as acaroligsts (ack-ar-ahlogists) can study the shape and size of all of a mite's leg and body parts. This makes them easier to identify, notes Ron Ochoa, an acarologist at ARS' Systematic Entomology Laboratory, also in Beltsville.

Erbe, who teamed with Ochoa and others to produce the mite photos, came up with a neat way of displaying them. He turns the photos into what he calls "box photos." These three-dimensional (3-D) boxes show all of a mite's sides—its center (located on top of the box), the left and right sides, front and rear.

Now, you can make your own 3-D box photo of a female broad mite.

Now, you can make your own 3-D box photo of a female broad mite. All you have to do is print off a copy of the mite photos and follow our instructions on the next page.


1) print this page

2) cut along the photo box's outer edges or tabs

3) fold each side

4) tape or glue the sides/tabs that you just cut together to form a cube.

For a sturdier photo box, first glue the printed copy to construction paper. Be sure, though, to smooth out any bubbles. Then, once dry, cut out the photo box. Fold the sides and tape or glue them together. For best results, use a color printer (if available).

— Jennifer Arnold, formerly Agricultural Research Service, Information Staff

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Last Modified: 8/12/2016
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