Remember those perfect Valley weekend afternoons back in April? T-shirt and sandals weather. Everybody up north was getting pelted by hail and doused by torrential rains. You were giggling on the patio.
This was why you moved here.
Over the eons, this was also why all of our many beautiful palo verde trees, yuccas and cactuses made their homes here. Alas, our abundant and diverse plant life naturally led to a spectacular universe of creepy-crawly life.
And that’s why scorpions, spiders and other venomous monsters of the Valley are as ornery as you are right now. They’re not fond of 115-degree days, either. They want to cool off. And, unfortunately, they might do that on your patch of lawn in the backyard, in your garage or — God forbid — in the dark corners of your child’s bedroom closet.
Here’s a refresher course on how to survive the coming arachnid and insect apocalypse.
Ancient desert peoples looked up to the night sky and were awed by the constellation Scorpius.
Scorpio is the astrological sign for those born from Oct. 23 to Nov. 21.
It’s safe to say that we’ve been alternately fascinated and terrified by the creature with the nasty venomous tail for a long time.
Arizona’s landscape and climate is a paradise for more than 50 species of scorpions, but the only one Valley residents really need to worry about is the bark scorpion, according to Andy Baldwin, who chairs the Life Science department at Mesa Community College.
Yellowish in color, bark scorpions are small, about 2-3 inches in length, and very slender. They are predators who use their highly toxic venom to paralyze insects, and sometimes other scorpions.
By contrast, the Arizona hairy scorpion, which you also might see lurking in your garage or around your swimming pool, is 5-7 inches long and much bulkier. The hairy scorpion can crush beetles, roaches, crickets and other insects and tear them into pieces, so its venom doesn’t need to be as strong as the bark scorpion’s.
Female bark scorpions give birth during summer months to a brood of 25-35 live youngsters, who ride around on mom’s back until they molt and can forage on their own.
The main reason humans have so many encounters with bark scorpions is because of the creatures’ ability to climb. They scamper up and over concrete block walls and scale up and down palm trees with ease. They can slip through a crack just 1/16th-inch wide under a door or around a window and, once inside, scurry up textured walls and across ceilings. They can’t get traction on glass or clean, hard surfaces such as plastic. That’s why you often see them helpless in a bathtub or shower. (They don’t come up through drains.)
If you’re a healthy adult not plagued by any serious respiratory or allergy issues, a bark scorpion bite will cause great pain for a couple of days, but usually no swelling. A scorpion-related death hasn’t occurred in Arizona for more than 40 years.
“I’ve been stung by bark scorpions a half-dozen times,” Baldwin says. “It hurts like hell — but that’s it. I’m more afraid of prickly pears.”
Baldwin says that homeowners who xeriscape and use native desert plants are less likely to experience scorpion problems than residents who create tropical oases with irrigated lawns and swimming pools. Keeping your yard tidy — free from wood and brush piles and overgrown shrubs — also helps.
However, if you live in a scorpion-prone neighborhood and have children under the age of 10 — or if you are elderly or an allergy-prone adult — you’ll want to take more aggressive action against bark scorpions.
A bark scorpion bite that causes severe swelling, jittery eye movements, muscle twitching or difficulty swallowing and breathing requires immediate medical attention. It’s always a good idea to call the 24-hour Banner Poison & Drug Information Center at 800-222-1222 after any venomous bite for advice.
Only about 100 bark scorpion bites per year in the Valley are serious enough to require life-saving — and very expensive — anti-venom, according to the ASU School of Life Sciences.
Most Valley residents have pest control companies regularly spray for scorpions, which controls them to a certain extent, but more importantly eliminates their insect food source. If you’re lucky, bark scorpions will move on to greener pastures.
It’s prudent to seal your home up tight with caulk and weather-stripping. If you have kids and pets, you probably don’t want to blast rooms with strong pesticides. To protect infants, drop the legs of a crib in glass jars and keep the crib well away from walls. You also might want to suspend a large foam-board shield above the crib to prevent scorpions from dropping down.
At night, when scorpions leave their shaded daytime hidey-holes to hunt, adventurous homeowners can go out with a blacklight and stomp them with a heavy boot or squish them with a long-handled grabber tool. It takes diligence and time to get them under control.
Or residents can call the Scorpion Equalizer, aka Dean Andrews of Ahwatukee.
When his young daughter was frightened out of her wits by a scorpion some years ago, he hunted them down like a vengeful Liam Neeson. Neighbors asked him to rid their yards of scorpions. He learned by trial and error and built up a robust business as a pesticide-free scorpion executioner.
Andrews says when you see a scorpion in your home, kill it with a shoe, a book, a golf club — whatever’s at hand. “Don’t blow it by going to look for the perfect killing tool. The scorpion will be gone.”
His other cardinal rule is never assume a scorpion is dead unless you’ve flattened it. He says he’s seen scorpions start twitching after dredging them up from the bottom of a pool and after being drenched in bug spray.
2. Killer bees
Scientists prefer the term Africanized honeybees. But a recent vicious attack in Mesa’s Usery Mountain Park that killed a young man is still fresh in many Valley residents’ minds. It also provides a grim reminder of how unpredictable, aggressive and relentless these insects can be. The hiker was stung more than a thousand times, and the swarm turned on park employees and firefighters who tried to help the victim.
When Africanized bees arrived here in the summer of 1993, they quickly mated with and overwhelmed the gentle European bee population. Assume that any bee you see in a park, in your garden or on a trail is an Africanized honeybee, says research technologist Osman Kaftanoglu, of the ASU Bee Lab in Mesa.
When outdoors, you’ll be less noticeable to bees if you wear light-colored clothing. Avoid using scented soaps and lotions, as many odors can attract or provoke bees. The smell of a banana, Kaftanoglu says, can trigger an alarm in bees to start stinging.
This time of year, bees seek water as much as pollen, Kaftanoglu notes. Large numbers of them can gather around ponds and might become attracted to your lawn sprinklers. Bees that are busy gathering water and pollen far from the hive, however, usually aren’t a threat.
Trouble begins when people accidentally get too close to a nest. Africanized honeybees aren’t particular about where they establish a colony. It could be an irrigation box, a cavity in a saguaro, or a hole in the ground.
Be alert to an intensification of bee activity close to a hive and the steady buzz that emanates from a colony. Once stinging begins, your only recourse is to run. Pull your shirt up over your ears to protect your face and eyes. Get inside a car, house or other building as quickly as possible. Don’t dive into a pool, Kaftanoglu advised. They’ll wait for you to surface and resume stinging.
Although the tarantula wins the award for scariest-looking spider, its bite is about as harmful as a single bee sting.
A bite from a black widow or desert (brown) recluse, on the other hand, is very serious and requires medical attention. The trouble with many spider bites is they often go unnoticed until swelling, pain and other symptoms appear hours later.
Baldwin of Mesa Community College says black widows like to hide under park benches and other outdoor furniture. They’ll also weave their irregular white webs inside of barbecue grills and around pool pumps and storage areas. The spider itself is large and black, with a distinctive red hourglass marking on the abdomen.
The desert recluse is small and brown and has three pairs of eyes (most spiders have eight eyes). Markings on its back may resemble a violin shape. It’s more of a hunter and can turn up almost anywhere a scorpion would. Baldwin says whenever he needs a recluse for a demonstration, he goes into the garage and opens up a box of Christmas ornaments.
Its bite is dangerous.
“It’s the only thing I ever kill,” says Kaftanoglu. “Everything else I just pick up and throw outside.”
– Mike Butler, East Valley Tribune / Edited for Phoenix.org