“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”
—Lewis Carroll, Jabberwocky
Around here, shunning the ichneumon, velvet ant, and especially the tarantula hawk might be sound advice, too.
I was on a walk recently with visitors from Colorado. They marveled at how few biting bugs we have in the Santa Monica Mountains. It’s true, mosquitoes and black flies are mercifully few, but we still have quite a few stingers, many of them strange enough to be entirely at home in Wonderland.
Let’s meet some of them, shall we?
With Scorpio, the largest and brightest of the summer constellations, dominating the night sky, it seems appropriate to start with this celestial creature's terrestrial counterparts. Although we tend to describe them as bugs, scorpions aren't insects, they're arthropods in the family Arachnida. Although there are four scorpion species in the Los Angeles area, the varieties most often found in Malibu are Paruoctonus sylvestrii, the common California scorpion; and Vaejovis spinigerus, the striped-tailed scorpion.
Paruoctonus sylvestrii, the common California scorpion, zeroes in on supper. This was a fairly large specimen—almost two inches long. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann
The best way to spot these elusive arthropods is at night with an ultraviolet light, because the scorpion’s entire exoskeleton fluoresces under UV light—a recent theory proposed by biologist Douglas Gaffin of the University of Oklahoma suggests the fluorescent pigments may act as a light receptor for the scorpion—an eyeless way of seeing. Here's a link to a 2012 article in New Scientist.
An inexpensive UV flashlight makes it easy to spot scorpions at night. Although, ignorance is perhaps bliss. I was astonished to discover just how many scorpions are out there and I have no intentions of ever sitting on the ground again at night. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann
I’ve been on several nighttime scorpion walks in the Santa Monica Mountains and I am astounded to find how many scorpions are out there. The fact that stings are so uncommon is a testament to the shy and retiring nature of these reclusive hunters.
Most stings occur when humans inadvertently disturb scorpion hiding places, including woodpiles and garden furniture. Scorpions have also been know to seek shelter in shoes left out overnight on the doorstep or in the folds of beach towels and other laundry left out to dry.
None of Malibu’s scorpion species are regarded as a dangerous and both the common scorpion and the striped-tail are apparently popular species in the pet trade. Both have a painful sting—victims compare it to a wasp sting—but it only poses a health hazard to individuals with severe allergy to the venom.
Scorpions are beneficial, eating many times their own weight in insects, so peaceful coexistence—whenever possible—is the best way of dealing with them. Besides, they're all around us, whether we know it or not.
Scorpions and centipedes are all very well, but the serious sting awards go to three members of the wasp family. These insects are usually shy and reluctant to sting, but when they do they have a formidable weapon.
The female Netelia ichneumon wasp has a painful sting, used to subdue caterpillars. It's been described as comparable to the sting of a yellowjacket or a bee. However, this is a beneficial wasp and it is reportedly only aggressive if handled. The Netelia in the photo is a stingless and benign male that somehow ended up in the house. This species is largely nocturnal, and often drawn to porch and garden lights. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann
The velvet ant is actually a wingless wasp, and like its distant relative the Netelia it also has an impressively painful sting. Biologist Justin Schmidt, who has been stung by just about everything possible, famously developed a pain scale for insect stings. If the sting of the yellowjacket—the most common and aggressive stinging insect in Malibu and just about everywhere else in North America—is a 2 on the 1-4 Schmidt pain scale, the velvet ant is probably a 3. Children are at the greatest risk for encounters with this wasp, since it's brightly colored, pretty, furry and tempting to touch. Fortunately, allergic reactions are reportedly relatively rare. Like the ichneumon wasp, only the female of the species stings. The male is small, winged and easily mistaken for some sort of inconspicuous fly. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann
All three wasps are eye-catching and have vivid coloring, probably intended to warn would-be predators to stay away. It's a warning humans would do well to heed. The Tarantula Hawk has the distinction of being second only to the bullet ant on Schmidt's pain scale. He rates the sting of this wasp as a 4, and adds “…immediate, excruciating pain that simply shuts down one’s ability to do anything, except, perhaps, scream. Mental discipline simply does not work in these situations.”
This spectacular insect really does prey on tarantulas, which is why it is armed with such a formidable weapon. The female tarantula hawk paralyses the tarantula with her sting and lays her eggs in the unfortunate arachnid, which she will drag to a preselected and prepared hole or burrow, where it will serve as a food source for the next generation of tarantula hawks. And you thought Malibu politics were nasty.
On a practical note, wearing gloves and shoes while working in the garden can help prevent some encounters with stingers. Many Malibu bee stings happen on the beach, where bees congregate on the wet sand to find salt. A pair of flip flops can help prevent beech bee stings, but some bites and stings are unavoidable—yellowjacket wasps win the award for general orneriness and often appear to sting without provocation, and even in Malibu in the middle of the worst drought in decades, mosquitoes are still out for blood.
Anyone experiencing swelling, hives, breathing problems, or any other sign of a serious allergic reaction from any type of sting should seek immediate emergency medical assistance. Even without a serious allergic reaction, stings can be surprisingly painful and, in some cases, take days to stop hurting or itching.
It's a good idea to keep Benadryl in the first aid kit for sting emergencies. Anyone with sting allergies should make sure they have an up-to-date EpiPen on hand, as well. Here at the Malibu Post we like "sting ampules." These are tiny, individual tubes of benzocane that are easy to carry and can be applied to give temporary relief from all kinds of stings. I've never seen them at a store, but Amazon sells a cheap and effective brand). Cortizone cream, Caladryl lotion and the kind of first aid cleansing spray or wipes with Benzalkonium Chloride and Lidocaine are also helpful. Ice helps reduce the pain and swelling from most types of sting, although some respond better to heat. In all cases prevention is much preferable to any sting remedy, no matter how efficacious.
The beautiful and deadly tarantula hawk embodies the dichotomy of the insect world: they share our world—or, rather, we share their world, since there are a lot more of them than there are of us, but often they inspire fear because they appear strange or have the ability to defend themselves with powerful chemical weapons. Most stinging "bugs" are beneficial and serve an important function in the local ecosystem. Learning to coexist is important, and offers us a look at a world as weird and alien as anything in fiction, and sometimes also a glimpse of something rare and surprisingly beautiful.
29 July 2014