Sunday, May 31, 2009

Summer: Baseball, Hot Dogs and Smooshing Scorpions

In honor of my first kill (scorpion-wise) of the season, I'm reprinting an article I wrote a few years ago on our perennial and crunchy house guests. Enjoy.

Around 2am, my husband screamed. If there is anything in the world that will snap you out of a deep slumber it’s a 6’5” guy screaming. I leaped up, ready to meet the alien hordes.

“SOMETHING BIT ME!” he repeated, throwing off the pillows and bedclothes, flailing around looking for the fanged menace. On closer inspection, there was a large reddened area between his shoulder blades. Something had indeed nailed him, but there were no puncture wounds, nothing to indicate the relative size of the marauding predator. Whatever it was, it did not have fangs.

Forty minutes later, after completely dismantling the bed, we finally caught up with the perpetrator. It was a sandy-colored arthropod about two inches long, known as a bark scorpion (Centruroides exilicauda.)

As luck would have it, our surprise guest, the little bark scorpion, is the only variety in the United States whose venomous sting can kill a human in certain circumstances, and does so, with regularity, in the more remote parts of Mexico. As luck would further have it, the bark scorpion is found in abundance throughout Arizona, preferring rocky terrain, just like the topography where our house sits. They can also be found in lesser concentrations in parts of California, New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada. However, it’s the populations of scorpions roaming free within the walls of our home that will always get my undivided attention.

The folks at the Poison Control Center were very helpful. Apparently, we were not the only people in Arizona to have scorpions scuttling around under the covers. The specialist on the phone was heartily unimpressed with our bark scorpion encounter. They average 12,000 calls a year.

Through a yawn, she suggested ice water compresses for the sting area and some extra strength pain reliever for the big guy groaning in the background. She told me that the pain would subside in 4-6 hours, but that he should go to an emergency room if he starts to have any trouble breathing. I was okay with that. We have always had a standing rule in our house; anyone who turns blue gets a free trip to the hospital.

Major symptoms of a sting start within the hour and my husband’s did just that. First his eyes started fluttering. Under different circumstances, I would have thought he was being sexy. After that, the muscles in his arms and back started to twitch in a random pattern. We both watched with unabashed fascination, like a couple of mad scientists. He commented more than once that the pain in the sting area was the most intense he had ever experienced.

Even an unimaginably small amount of neurotoxin from the bark scorpion can lead to a large variety of symptoms. Some people experience numbness or tingling in their face and extremities. Others have problems with slurred speech or drooling. Kids often get irritable or hyperactive after a sting. The very worst-case scenarios, though, can have people on ventilators or heart complications. The vast majority recovers quickly and never has to see an emergency room.

It was almost anticlimactic. With all the fear of scorpions and their mythic sting, you’d think that my husband could do something more than make googly eyes at me. Remember James Bond in “Diamonds Are Forever?” One of the bad guys sticks a scorpion down the back of another guy’s shirt and he instantly keels over. Remember that? A scene like that can go a long way toward insuring the belief that once stung a person should immediately begin reviewing their last will and testament.

The lethal character of scorpions is so entrenched in the human imagination that even my daughter, after she heard that her father had been stung during the night, asked, in all her childish seriousness, “Did he die?” Since he was walking through the room when she wanted to know this, I had to direct her attention to his living, breathing person. It wasn’t true disappointment that crossed her face, but puzzlement. The stories that she had taken as gospel from her teachers and from her mother turned out not to be true.

I wonder how many ways that guy from Vermont thought that he was going to die when a stowaway scorpion made its way up one leg of his pants and down the other leg on a flight from Chicago to Burlington. The little critter stung him twice, once on the way in and once on the way out. He’s fortunate he got stung on the legs and not on a more vulnerable area. The airline fell all over themselves trying to make sure he wasn’t too unhappy about the incident. With so many people overly sensitive to the dangers of flying, they don’t need any more bases for phobias.

I don’t suppose we should have been too startled to find a scorpion getting cozy with us in our bed or on a jet taking off from Chicago. That little guy and his forebears have been hanging around this planet for 430 million years. They’re just reminding us who was here first. In the critter game of “Survivor”, scorpions win every time. Humans aren’t even a blip on the scorpion’s evolutionary radar.

They can survive years in stasis, without eating or drinking. They can be submerged in water for over two days and shake off the dunking. They can put off the birth of their babies for a year. They can live from 3 to 25 years, depending on the species. They can survive being frozen or broiled by desert temperatures. Our little bark scorpion friends can climb up a smooth wall and take a stroll on the ceiling. They, like Donna Summer, will survive.

In fact, any exterminator who says he can eliminate scorpions by spraying the baseboards of your home probably has a nice bridge he can sell you. Scorpions are impervious to poisons, for the most part. They don’t clean themselves like most insects do, so they don’t ingest the poison that is so cleverly designed to kill them. The smart exterminator won’t try to sell you ineffective poisons. He’s going to try to sell you something far, far more expensive and only a little bit more effective.

Home sealing is the darling of bug warriors in the desert. For between $2500 and $6000, they will come in and weather-strip your home against the eight-legged invasion. It’s all dandy for keeping out the millions of creepy crawlies living la vida loca outside, but doesn’t do a bit to stop the thriving critters inside or the hitchhikers that come in with us. After all, that’s where the party is.

The Extension Cooperative entomologists at the University of Arizona strongly urge people to use converted-lantern black lights for a periodic, thorough bug hunt. Scorpions fluoresce under black light and turn a prominent shade of blue when usually they are masters of camouflage. These well-meaning but undoubtedly socially challenged scientists suggest that these nocturnal safaris can be an entertaining source of family “fun.” I don’t know, but “fun” to me suggests a certain level of pleasure. Hunting insects that can deliver an excruciatingly painful sting doesn’t mesh with my definition of fun.

I have to hand it to these guys at the University of Arizona, though. They go full out when it comes to making scorpions mainstream. They close their webpage on scorpions with an impassioned plea to catch and release these “wonderful creatures” back into the environment. I may be playing Russian roulette with my spiritual karma here, but any scorpion found in my house is toast. I stop short of having them stuffed and mounted over the fireplace, but that’s about it.

Recent newspaper articles appearing in the Arizona Republic have mentioned the ubiquitous house cat as a meaningful line of defense against scorpions. Cats apparently are immune to the scorpion’s venom and are inclined to eat the little critters. All cats, that is, except for ours. Princess will go “on point” when she encounters a scorpion, maybe giving a half-hearted meow, but consuming them would be out of the question. It is for her minion (me) to rid the house of any creature with more than four legs.

Desert dwellers have come up with some clever responses to the eternal problem of scorpions. The Phoenix Zoo puts live chickens in the outdoor pens to keep the scorpions from harming the more fragile members of their zoo family. The chickens find the crusty bugs a tasty treat, and that makes them an extremely effective method of extermination, but I’m not sure I’m ready for scorpion hunting with poultry. Some folks put a barrier of diatomaceous earth around their homes. The ground glass-like substance scratches the exoskeleton of the scorpions as they scuttle over it. In about 3 days, the critters dry out and die. But three days is a long time in the battle to keep a home scorpion-free. One little scorpion could potentially wreak havoc on a family in three whole days.

We often apply a low-tech approach and put out sticky traps for the creepy-crawlies. I think they may be on to my plan though, since I once found one hiding under the trap on the part where there is no sticky stuff. In the last year, I’ve captured half a dozen spiders, a silverfish and about one million dust bunnies in my traps. As the old song goes, I think I better think this out again.

A lot of the desert fauna feasts on scorpions without fear of reprisal, although there are obvious drawbacks to inviting owls, mice, bats, the mighty tarantula or even less-menacing species of scorpion in your home to take care of your pest problems. If I could be sure that it wouldn’t bite my finger off or eat one of my children, I would consider bringing in a meerkat. Our cat, Princess, would find out the hard way that her residence here is conditional.

Amazingly, the little eight-legged cousins to the spider don’t just hang out in our bedroom, they exist in every type of habitat except for Antarctica. They have been uncovered at 12,000 feet altitude in the Himalayas. They have adapted to savannah and forest, from sea to shining sea.

All of the 1400 identified species are venomous, all are carnivorous, and all fluoresce under a black light, which is sort of cool. They all could certainly benefit from some better PR.

They are, for example, rather attentive mothers for the insect world. Their 25-35 offspring get a free ride on mama’s back until their first molt, and for 4 or 5 days after. With Mom’s constant protection and support while they are vulnerable, her young have a relatively better chance of survival. That’s very un-bug-like behavior. Some species may even congregate in social or extended family groups, sharing shelter and food. Their famous “courtship dances” with their locked pincers make for excellent documentary footage. It’s not often that mating gets a network G rating.

According to some paleontologists, scorpions were the first species to move from water to land, so they have had a long time to burrow into our mythologies and nightmares. The ancient Babylonians told of a race of scorpion men. These half man-half scorpion creatures shot arrows that never missed. Egyptians have revered the scorpion for ages. Serket is the goddess who appears with the scorpion sitting on her head. She and her creepy crawly friend protect the pharaohs and the dead. Her sister-goddess, Isis, has a bodyguard of seven scorpions. In ancient Greece, the mythic hunter Orion was killed by Scorpio the scorpion as punishment for being naughty in ways that only a demi-god can. He was placed in the heavens by Zeus 180 degrees away from his killer, Scorpio.

Folk tales also abound. In Egypt, the people believe scorpions are born from the corpses of dead crocodiles, that women are immune to a scorpion’s sting, and that only stings received in the morning are lethal. The English used to believe that they bred from bruised sweet bay leaves. My favorite story is the one that says a scorpion that is surrounded by a ring of fire will sting itself to death. Now there’s a dicey method of extermination. I wonder how often that theory was tested.

Legend has made the scorpion the fearsome creature that it is; but actually, only about 25 different species carry venom that can be troublesome to humans, with mostly small children and the elderly being in any jeopardy. With a little medical care and antivenin for the most extreme stings, the mortality rate from scorpion stings drops to zero. There have been no deaths from scorpions in Arizona for the last 40 years running. Places where medical care is uncommon or substandard have increased risk for humans succumbing to complications of a scorpion’s sting since their neurotoxin venom can interfere with breathing and heart beat.

Some pet providers even suggest that scorpions make an interesting and offbeat pet. Websites are springing up that deal with the care and breeding of these sincerely non-cuddly, venomous insects. I bet those guys from the entomology department at the University of Arizona were the first in line for the “beautiful creatures”. Conversely, the entomologists over at Kansas State University are a bit creeped out by trend of keeping stinging insects as pets and have posted warnings against doing so on their website. They must be dog people.

Scorpions are not just another pretty face. Science has found important uses for certain chemical compounds in scorpion venom. Medical researchers have parlayed the Giant Yellow Israeli Scorpion’s venom into an effective means of combating glioma, a fast-growing and terminal form of brain cancer. Results from human testing have been very positive.

So, scorpions aren’t all bad all the time. They have been victims of more bad press than Paris Hilton. I can almost find a bit of sympathy in my heart for their plight. But this isn’t the beginning of a beautiful friendship. If they continue sneaking into our house, I will continue smooshing them with my shoe, but now I will do so while respectfully acknowledging their extraordinary adaptability and lineage.

After exactly four hours, the pain in my husband’s back evaporated as quickly as it had come on. His body had conquered the neurotoxins poked into him on the end of the scorpion’s tail. Every sign that he had encountered a deadly poison vanished. He seemed pleased with his ability to overcome certain death.

My darling husband spent the next day marveling at the lack of any residual pain. I spent the next day making sure that little sandy-colored critters with eight legs and a nasty sting didn’t try to party with us while we slept.

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