Susan Straight of Chilmark isn’t being saucy when she insists that she finds the most interesting things in her outdoor shower.   

Outside shower aficionados will understand her experience, even if they describe the interlopers in a less appreciative way. Critters are a common complaint for those whose shower is also a habitat.  

Strait’s shower companions are of the creepy-crawly type — “creepy” describing their movement, not their intent. Her friends, though furry, are harmless and are even helpful in the ecosystem, but they may have questionable assets as bathing buddies. Perhaps it is the moisture they like, or maybe the sweetly-scented soaps and shampoos that attract them. Or maybe, they are just peepers. 

It was not a frog but a mighty mite that brought interest and color to her shower. The red velvet mite has been described by those not in the know as an “obese spider covered in plush red velvet fabric.” In this column, that description is not an insult: we practice body love and we do love spiders, though we also insist on scientific accuracy.  

Red velvet mites are not spiders. Rather, they are arachnids and, while related to spiders, are different. They are not insects either. Mites and spiders both have eight legs. Spiders have two body parts while mites only have one. Ticks are related closely to mites. Insects, on the other hand, have three body parts — head, thorax and abdomen — and only six legs.  

It is with these legs that the red velvet mite dances as part of an intricate and interesting mating ritual. Male red velvet mites work hard to find a mate. They begin by creating a structure of sticks and plants on which they will place a spermatophore (sperm packet). Entomologists have romantically called this structure a “love garden.” 

Leading away from this erotic edifice, the mite deposits a silken path and then waits at the head of the slippery trail. If a female comes by, he will dance and, if she likes what she sees, she will follow the trail to the love garden. Once there, she will sit atop his spermatophore, effectively impregnating herself.    

A more passionate red velvet mite story is hard to imagine. 

But things don’t always go as planned in love or in science. If another male finds the slick path, he will destroy it and then spread his own material over the area. Even with the destruction, a female can still be attracted to the damaged love shack and will take the rivals’ packet, instead of her original suitor’s.    

Don’t feel sorry for sorry for the mites, though. This betrayal is bad but is better than getting eaten, which is another custom of red velvet mites. They are predators of many insects and will even consume each other.  

Ultimately, lots of mites is a good thing: they are harmless, even helpful, creatures that aid in decomposition and serve as a biological control agent by consuming agricultural pest species. Laying up to 100,000 eggs, red velvet mites are truly fruitful and they really multiply (though preferably not in your shower). Their life cycle has been categorized as “it’s complicated,” with the sequence having an egg, pre-larva, larva, protonymph, deutonymph, tritonymph and adult.  

With this mite’s frisky ways, it is not surprising that the species has been used as an aphrodisiac and has been called Indian Viagra for its potency. While I can’t recommend or even comment on this use of these animals, there are those that mite.

Suzan Bellincampi is Islands director for Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown and the Nantucket Wildlife Sanctuaries. She is also the author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature and The Nature of Martha’s Vineyard.