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

What's Bugging You?

A field guide to the creepy-crawlies around — and sometimes on — us here in Southwest New Mexico.

By Peggy Platonos



"What do you think about our New Mexico bugs?" asked a friendly neighbor, shortly after I moved into the house I'm renting in the semi-wilderness of the Mimbres Valley.

A tarantula, found outside the author's house in the Mimbres Valley. It had a legspan of five or six inches.
(Photo by Peggy Platonos)

Honestly, I hadn't given much thought to bugs. As a newcomer to New Mexico, I was more concerned about potentially dangerous critters like rattlesnakes, javelinas and mountain lions — none of which I had ever encountered in suburban New Jersey, where I grew up, or in London, where I lived for seven years, or even in upstate New York, where I had enjoyed a pleasantly rural existence for the last three-and-a-half decades.

I wasn't even all that concerned when my landlady warned me, emphatically, never to pick up a rock without rolling it over first to be sure there wasn't a black widow spider lurking under it. I wasn't sure what a black widow spider looked like, but I figured the thing to do was simply to avoid any spider found lurking under a rock.

It wasn't until I discovered that there were spiders of all shapes and sizes lurking inside my house that I began to feel alarmed. Then I heard about brown recluse spiders and the horrors that can be unleashed by their bite, and I succumbed to a full-blown case of paranoia, viewing every spider as potentially dangerous.

Apparently, I am not alone in this. "Part of the problem we as biologists have is misnomers and misconceptions about what is dangerous," says Dennis Miller, professor of biology and department chair at Western New Mexico University in Silver City. "One of the big things you need to know is there's a big difference between an animal being dangerous and being venomous. All true spiders are venomous. Their venom is a form of digestive enzyme that is injected when they bite. But there is only one truly dangerous spider in this area: the black widow spider."

But even the danger from the bite of black widow spiders may be overrated, says Dave Richman, associate professor and arachnology specialist at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, as well as curator of the Arthropod Museum. "I think there's way too much fear," he says. "I'd like to put the record straight. According to the Centers for Disease Control, black widow spiders have not caused a death in the United States in the past 10 years. There's far more danger of death on our highways, or from bee stings, or even in bathtubs. Grizzly bears beat out black widow spiders, too, by killing half a person a year — well, one person every two years."

Male black widow spiders are smaller than the females and have smaller fangs, which deliver smaller doses of venom and are nearly incapable of biting humans. "It's the female black widow spider that is the dangerous one," Richman says. And those females don't hesitate to bite people when they feel their lives or egg sacs are threatened.

"There were a lot more bites in the past because of outdoor toilets," Richman explains. "Female black widow spiders would hang out under the seats, which were, from their point of view, a boon. A food supply in the form of flies was readily available, and the seats provided a sheltered place for egg sacs."

Richman has personal experience with the effects of black widow spider bites. His young daughter was bitten three times while in her bed when she was about 10 years old by a black widow spider that became trapped in her clothing. "The venom does make you agitated. It gives muscle cramps, sometimes a light fever. But a healthy person is not likely to die," Richman says. The treatment, he adds, consists of "giving painkillers like Advil or ibuprofen to lessen the muscle pain and bring down the fever. The symptoms last a couple of days, and there are no after-effects."

The bite of the brown recluse spider, however, is a different story. "A brown recluse spider sore stays painful for quite a while," Richman says. The spider's venom begins to "digest" the flesh around the bite, causing the cells to become necrotic — in other words, to die. "Normally, a bite produces a sore about the size of a quarter. There are, however, a number of conditions that can cause similar symptoms: for instance, Lyme disease or the early stage of syphilis. A misdiagnosis is dangerous, because the treatment regimen may be completely different."

Some nasty results of a bite by a brown recluse spider have nothing to do with the spider's venom, Richman adds. "The bite can also cause various kinds of infections by introducing bacteria into the wound, including flesh-eating bacteria. This is why brown recluse spider bites are treated with antibiotics — not to deal with the venom, but to deal with any bacteria that might accompany the bite."

Despite reports of bites by these spiders in our area, there have been, according to both Miller and Richman, no confirmed specimens of brown recluse spiders found in this part of New Mexico. This good news is tempered, Richman cautions, by the fact that "we do have a very similar native species that produces the same sort of bites. I doubt that the average person would notice the difference between either the spiders or the bites."

He is referring to the Apache violin spider, which can be found pretty much all over the southwestern part of New Mexico and the southeastern part of Arizona. Both brown recluse and Apache violin spiders are members of the "violin" spider family — a name that refers to the violin shape commonly found on the cephalothorax (the front segment) of these spiders. Both species are quite small — their bodies about a third of an inch long and their overall length, including leg span, about an inch. (Males are a little smaller than females.) They have six eyes instead of the eight that most spiders have. (Unless you're young enough to have exceptionally sharp vision, you would probably need a magnifying glass to count the eyes.) And their venom is similar, too.

Fortunately, neither brown recluse nor Apache violin spiders are particularly aggressive, at least toward humans. "They seldom bite," Richman says. "Usually only as a last resort if caught in clothing, for instance."



Years ago, I came across this statement about snakes in a little children's book: "Only a few kinds of snakes are poisonous, but they've given all snakes a bad name." The same can be said about spiders. Taken as a whole, spiders are actually an interesting bunch.

"All have eight legs and most have eight eyes," Richman says. "And they have silk glands in the abdomen and spinnerets (usually six) for making webs. The spider silk they produce, known as 'gossamer,' is quite strong. Young spiders sometimes travel by 'ballooning' — spinning a long thread, hanging at the end of it, and letting the wind blow them to a new location."

Instead of indiscriminately slaughtering spiders we find in our homes, we probably should welcome them, because they tend to dine on the kind of smaller insects we're happy to see disappear: mosquitoes, flies, gnats, ants. There are even some kinds of spiders that are sworn enemies of black widow spiders. One that is native to this area is the daddy-longlegs spider (also called the "cellar spider") — not to be confused with the gangly, round-bodied daddy longlegs that is more common on the ground and quite harmless.

I have a lot of the latter running around my house, too, and I leave them alone. They are not actually spiders, although they do have eight legs and are arachnids, but belong to a separate order. "They use the second pair almost like antennae," explains Dr. Carol Sutherland, Cooperative Extension entomologist at NMSU. The body of these traditional daddy longlegs is a single roundish unit, whereas all spiders, including the daddy-longlegs spider, have two body segments — the cephalothorax in front and the abdomen behind.

According to Richman, native spiders in this area, including the daddy-longlegs spider, are rapidly being replaced by the imported Mediterranean squint-eyed spider. These newcomers not only don't like black widow spiders, they don't like any other spiders, and are losing no time in getting rid of them. "As one of my friends in California said, 'They're simplifying the ecosystem,'" Richman comments.

Perhaps the ecosystem in this area of New Mexico could stand a bit of simplifying, at least in terms of the spider population. According to Miller, "one of the highest number in the United States of different species of arachnids (a category that includes spiders and scorpions) is right here in Grant County."



I believe most of those spider species have representatives living in my house. And I'm still not sure I would recognize a black widow spider if I saw one — though I do have more information to go on. I now know the body of an adult female (which, of course, is the one we need to worry about) is about a half-inch long, with a legspan of one to one-and-a-half inches. According to Richman, a "gravid" female — one that is ready to lay eggs — is about the size of a grape.

The rear segment of the black widow, I now know, has a distinctive shape. It is, as Miller describes it, "a bulbous abdomen that comes to a tear-drop point."

I have learned that another distinctive characteristic of the black widow spider is a red hourglass shape on the underside of its abdomen. I wasn't exactly sure how this would help me make a quick identification unless the spider obligingly turned belly up for me. But, according to Richman, black widow spiders generally hang upside-down in their webs — so, if the web is low enough, maybe under a rock, that red hourglass should be easy to see.

Still, the identification of black widow spiders is complicated by the fact that appearances, even within the same species (and there may be at least two different black-widow species in this part of New Mexico) vary quite a bit — even, surprisingly, when it comes to color. You would think it safe to assume that a black widow spider would be. . . well, black. And many are. But, according to Richman, others may be chocolate brown or plum-colored. Some males are white. And that classic red hourglass shape? Well, sometimes the red hourglass is there and sometimes there's only a red bar or two red triangles. On their backs, the spiders can be a solid black, brown or plum color, or there may be red and/or white dots and occasionally even canary-yellow spots, as in a specimen found in the southern part of New Mexico's Lea County.

Yet another species in the fairly extensive "widow" spider family may be heading toward New Mexico. Both Sutherland and Richman would welcome information about any light-brown spiders found locally "with a typically shaped orange hourglass mark on the underside and egg sacs covered with tuffs of silk." Richman explains, "This would confirm the invasion of the brown widow spider, a cosmotropical tramp species that has reached Arizona on one side and Oklahoma on the other."



Though the black widow spider and brown recluse spider can be considered dangerous spiders, the tarantula is not. Because of its large size, however, it probably qualifies as the scariest-looking member of the spider family. "Oh, they have venom, but it's overrated," says Richman. The bite is painful, nonetheless, simply because of the size of the tarantula's fangs. Richman compares the bite to being stabbed by a pair of tiny ice picks; Miller says it's like being stabbed by two lead pencil points.

Though neither of these descriptions sounds like anything one would want to experience, Richman warns: "The main danger of tarantulas is with the irritating hairs on their abdomens, which, when they feel threatened, they scrape off with their back legs, causing them to puff out in a little cloud. The hairs are equipped with microscopic barbs and cause irritation if they get in a person's — or a predator's — eyes."

Richman adds that tarantulas, or at least female tarantulas, are the longest-living members of the spider family, with a lifespan of 20 to 30 years. Male tarantulas, somewhat smaller than the females, don't fare as well, generally living no more than five years — four of which have to be spent reaching maturity.



Scorpions are another arachnid group that arouse an inordinate amount of fear in humans. As a kid, I learned from Western movies that, when camping in the Southwest, you'd better shake your boots out before putting them on in case a scorpion crawled into them during the night.

I also definitely got the idea that a sting from a scorpion was usually lethal. Not so, according to Miller. "For most people, a scorpion's sting is much like a bee sting — but, of course, there are some people who may develop a dangerous allergic reaction, as is true with bee stings." An individual allergic reaction is similarly possible, Miller emphasizes, with otherwise harmless spider bites.

Whereas a bite comes from the head, a sting comes from the other end. And a scorpion stings with style, generally carrying its tail arced over its head, perpetually poised for action. To sting, it grabs either prey or predator with its pinchers and stabs downward with its tail, stinging in front of its own head.

"There are about 21 to 25 species of scorpions in New Mexico," says Richman. "I know that because I helped compile a complete list. Of those, only one can be considered truly dangerous: the Arizona bark scorpion. It lives in loose bark under cottonwood trees, in old adobe houses and under stones, and can be found in only three counties in New Mexico." Grant County, wouldn't you know, is one of the three, and the other two are neighboring Catron and Hidalgo.

"There is a related species found from the area of Las Cruces, east into the Great Plains. Its venom seems to be less toxic. It can be usually identified by the dark-colored triangle in the head area," Richman adds.

He describes these scorpions as "about two and a half to three inches long, slender, straw-colored. They can be striped or un-striped. They carry their tails curled up or sideways, or trailing behind when running. The females are chunkier than the males, which have the record for slenderness among our native scorpions."



One of the most ferocious-looking members of the related whip scorpion order are commonly known as vinegaroons. They are classified as whip-tail scorpions, and they are seriously ugly and intimidating: Their big, very dark, segmented bodies are somewhat flattened; they have large, claw-like appendages on either side of the mouth; and they have a long, whip-thin tail that trails behind them unless they're alarmed.

"When a vinegaroon is alarmed," Sutherland says, "its tail straightens up, it elevates its abdomen. If the threat persists, it starts trembling and releases a spray with a strong vinegar odor. And that's it. Those are its only defenses: size, formidable appearance and bad smell. For a dedicated predator like a hungry coyote, it's just pin it down and eat it."

She adds, almost affectionately, "Vinegaroons are really good guys. They make excellent classroom pets. With a little bit of handling, they won't spray in a calm environment. They can be kept for years with the right amount of moisture and food. Just put them in a terrarium with a bit of water, a place to hide, and feed them crickets, caterpillars, just about anything. They'll crack open hard-shelled beetles like coconuts. They eat a lot of different things. It's really underappreciated how many critters they're actually eating, and how much they contribute to keeping the populations of undesirable insects down."

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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