My friends Sudha and Padma, and I collected these very friendly creatures in match boxes, as did a lot of other children. When we collected several birba buddis, the match box was replaced with a bigger box, typically a rectangular toffee box, in which we placed some grass because we just assumed that the velvet mites ate grass! We had hours of fun with them, allowing them to crawl over our palms and up our hands. They were timid insects and when touched, their legs would fold in and they curled up into tiny immobile balls! And when they did this, we would chant a poem, "birba buddi, birba buddi, teri aankh kholo..." (birba buddi, birba buddi, open your eyes), and then another line to the effect that it must go home immediately because its grandmother had died! Soon the birba buddi would unfold its legs and start walking, and we would think it was because of our little poem that it woke up!
We took it for granted---this active contact with nature. I do not remember when it was that we stopped seeing these insects. I hadn’t seen one for many many years until last year, when on a walk in a park near my home, I suddenly spotted one. I was overjoyed! I picked it up lovingly, and my first thought was to go to my children’s school, call them out of their classrooms and show it to them. I decided against this because I felt the teachers wouldn’t appreciate it too much. I wondered whether I should take it home…but the thought of the concrete I lived on, discouraged me. I decided to let it remain where I had found it, and searched frantically for others. I did not find any more, not even one. The rest of the rainy season, my eyes were on the ground as I walked, searching…in the grass, in bushes, in the place where I had last seen it…but, no luck.
The sight of a birba buddi after so many years gave me immense happiness, and I talked about it excitedly for the next two days...in fact, I am still talking about it! I am happy with the knowledge that they have not become extinct in these parts, as I had thought they had.
I subsequently read up about the velvet mite and was in for some surprises. Here is what I found:
At first glance, the minute red critter dancing across the earth is stunning. A closer look under the microscope announces it to be breathtakingly beautiful.
Can this really be said of one of nature's hairy eight-legged arthropods? Absolutely, if it's a red velvet mite. Long a favorite of biologists and children, these ruby gems of the family Trombidiidae are most often sighted on the woodland floors of the world, with millions inhabiting the woods of the Chicago Wilderness region.
"Under the microscope they are beautiful!" says Liam Heneghan, an ecosystem ecologist at DePaul University. "They look like a thumbprint." Most red velvet mites are egg-shaped and less than a millimeter in length. Fine decorative hairs, some of which may serve as feelers, give the creatures their lush red velvet appearance.
Though lovely to the eye, red velvet mites are disliked by the palate: their color may warn predators to the mites' unpleasant taste. "There are stories about biologists popping them into their mouths," says George Hammond, a University of Michigan graduate student who studies velvet mites. Other than ill-advised scientists, however, he knows of no natural enemies of these arachnids: "I've put them on an anthill and no ant would touch them."
Look up http://chicagowildernessmag.org/issues/fall2004/mite.html for the complete article.
In the meantime, my search for these red beauties continues. I hope I find one on a weekend, so I can show it to my children.