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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    August 2008

Bugs Guide

Page: 3

Kind of makes me sorry now that I evicted eight vinegaroons from my house over the course of three days last week. Even though I knew they were harmless, their appearance unnerved me.

Another set of innocuous but creepy-looking critters that spook a lot of people are the arachnids that scientists call solpugids. The rest of us call them either "sun spiders" or "wind scorpions," though they are neither spiders nor scorpions, and don't really look like either.

"They're pretty strange-looking," says Richman. "They look like something from Mars. They move very fast. And they scare the daylights out of people."

They have also managed to gain the undeserved reputation of being deadly to humans. "The myth is that you get bitten by a solpugid and you die. In actuality, I've never heard of anyone getting bitten by a solpugid and dying," Richman says, adding: "Well, they could bite you and you might get a bacterial infection from the bite, but you can get an infection from a splinter. And really, you're not likely to get bitten in the first place because these guys are so fast and they just want to get away."

Richman was actually commissioned to put together an information packet for our troops in Iraq to dispel similar fears about the much larger but equally innocuous Middle Eastern solpugid called a "camel spider." Our solpugids are only about half the size of camel spiders, whose bodies may be up to two inches in length and whose overall legspan may reach the size of a saucer.

Solpugids, according to Sutherland, are actually "good guys" for the same reason vinegaroons are — they eat lots of other bugs. "They've got big old chewing jaws at the front of their head, and they're good at running down and shredding prey." When threatened, she says, "they'll adopt a defensive posture — hike up on their legs to look bigger, rear back and open their jaws. But what they want is just to get away."

Other spooky critters that eat lots of bugs are not entirely "good" guys, however. A case in point is the centipede, which will inflict a painful bite on humans if threatened.

"All centipedes are poisonous, but not fatal for humans," Miller says.

Sutherland explains, "Their poison 'jaws' are actually hollow legs at the head end. They inject venom, which is designed to paralyze prey and digest the solids inside the prey's body, breaking it down and liquefying it so the centipede can suck it up like a little kid drinking a milkshake.

"A centipede bite in a human produces a slow-healing, painful, swollen-type wound," she says. "If the bite is on a finger with a ring, you'd better get the ring off that finger fast or you'll have to cut it off — the ring, not the finger."

Venom is not all a centipede may introduce when it bites. Says Richman, "While biting, a centipede may dig its feet in to maintain a grip, and if those feet break the skin, they can introduce bacteria and infection, creating a railroad track wound."

I knew none of this when I caught my first glimpse of a desert centipede — in my house, of course — but it sent an elemental chill through me, nevertheless. How could such a long, flat creature with all those nearly microscopic legs move so fast? It just seemed to have an aura about it that was as dark as its color.

The centipedes that I've seen in my house appear to be solid black in color and are about four or five inches in length. According to Richman, the largest of the three varieties of centipedes found in this part of New Mexico can reach a length of eight inches, and our centipedes come in quite a range of colors as well as sizes — green, khaki, plum, black — with the giant ones usually a splashy orange color with black head, tail and feet.

Millipedes, with rounded bodies and a zillion little feet, simply don't inspire the kind of chill that centipedes do. They can reach eight inches in length, too, but how scared can you be of something Sutherland describes as looking like "a crawling cigar," and whose defense, when alarmed, is simply to "roll up like a Danish pastry"?

It turns out that millipedes are as harmless as they look. They aren't poisonous. They don't bite. They don't dig their feet into you. The worst that can be said about them, according to Richman, is that "they can stink up your hands with defensive chemicals, if you allow them to crawl on you." Quite a different critter from the centipede.

The day I found a five-inch centipede napping on the sleeve of one of my blouses hanging in the closet in my bedroom, my worldview changed — and my behavior along with it. I no longer take safety for granted. I now shake out not only my shoes before putting them on, but every single piece of clothing, as well. And since the day I found a cone nose bug still clinging to a knit blouse after it had received a thorough shaking, I now also hold every piece of clothing up to the light and inspect it visually before putting it on.

Cone nose bugs, by the way, were the kind of bugs my friendly neighbor specifically wanted to warn me about. She showed me a huge welt on her arm and drew me a little picture of the bug that she said did it.

Cone nose bugs, she informed me, come out at night and bite you while you're sleeping. You can't feel them crawling on you and you can't feel them bite. But you sure can feel the itch afterwards. And some people also wind up with flu-like symptoms after being bitten by a cone nose.

I wasn't enthused about finding cone nose bugs in my house, but, of course, I did. And I deal with them, whenever I find them, in what Sutherland calls "the organic method. You just get hold of one and squash it." If the remains of the squashed bug include a red smear, the bug has recently sucked blood from you — or something.

Sutherland calls cone noses "the black sheep of the assassin bug family." The other members of the family, in this country at least, are beneficial, she says. "They are predators that feed on other insects we consider pests."

Cone nose bugs, however, feed on blood. And they aren't fussy about whose blood it is. "It can be the blood of basically any warm-blooded animal — rodents, birds, pets, people," Sutherland explains. "In humans, the bite is like a mosquito bite, but usually with a bigger welt. The welt and itch are reactions to the saliva the cone nose injects, which anesthetizes the wound and has an anticoagulant component to it that keeps the blood flowing. Flu-like symptoms might be an individual allergic reaction or might be something transmitted. Never trust anything that sucks blood because these are going to take multiple blood meals throughout their lifetime, and you never know where they got their last meal."

Nonetheless, Sutherland says we should count ourselves lucky. "At least we have the more — I hesitate to say 'benign,' because they can be pests. But we don't have the varieties of cone nose bugs that transmit disease. The principal disease cone noses are known to transmit is chagas disease, a pretty serious, debilitating, potentially fatal disease common further south in Mexico. The reason is that our variety of cone nose bug doesn't defecate on the wound it has created by feeding. Ours just feeds and leaves."

There are other blessings we can count, too, Richman points out. "We don't have Androctonus, the 'mankiller scorpion' of northern Africa. Or the 'deathstalker scorpion' of the Middle East. Or the extremely venomous so-called 'banana spider' of South America. Or the funnel web tarantula of Australia." Until modern antivenom was developed, Richman says, no one had ever survived the bite of an adult male of this last species.

Okay, I'm counting my blessings — only I'm afraid I've already ejected all eight of the vinegaroons I found in my house.

Peggy Platonos is a freelance writer and former newspaper editor who lives in the Mimbres Valley.

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