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Creepy Crawlers

Pinchers, Stingers, Biters, squiters, Kissers

by Jay W. Sharp

Note: It’s unlikely a taxonomist – that member of the Homo sapien species who spends hours classifying the organisms of our planet – would use the term “creepy crawlers” when referring to creatures such as the centipede, the tarantula hawk, the scorpion, the harvester ant, the tarantula, the walking stick or the assassin bug. More likely, a taxonomist would use the term “arthropod” when speaking of the creatures that, typically, have features such as exoskeletons, segmented body sections, paired and segmented appendages, and paired “compound” as well as “simple” eyes.

The creepy crawlers – sorry, arthropods – account for more species than all of our other life forms combined. Some – for instance, the flies, lice and locusts God visited on the Pharaoh to punish him for refusing to allow Israelites to leave Egypt during Biblical times – have caused great fam-drawn from poison sacks within its body trunk. The ine and plague for Homo sapiens. Others such as the centipede, equipped with nearly two dozen pairs of ladybug, that little polka-dotted beetle that thrives needle-pointed legs, might also inflict small puncon the destructive scale insect, or the honeybee, the tures as it walks across your skin, possibly leaving a import that produces honey for our tables and pol-bacterial infection in its tracks. linates the flowers of our fields and orchards, immea-Should you suffer a centipede’s pinch or puncsurably enrich our daily lives. tures, you should cleanse the wound(s) thoroughly

As we know firsthand from living in southwestern with soapy water and alcohol and coat them with an New Mexico, some of our arthropods come equipped antiseptic. If the inflammation becomes severe, you with offensive and defensive weaponry that speaks should seek medical help. to the evolutionary diversity of life.

The Centipede, a Pincher


The five- or six-inch-long desert centipede, common in southwestern New Mexico, can deliver an intensely painful pinch, puncturing your skin with the pair of powerful, fang-like, clawed legs located immediately behind its head and injecting venom drawn from poison sacks within its body trunk. The centipede, equipped with nearly two dozen pairs of
needle-pointed legs, might also inflict small punctures as it walks across your skin, possibly leaving a bacterial infection in its tracks.

Should you suffer a centipede’s pinch or punctures, you should cleanse the wound(s) thoroughly with soapy water and alcohol and coat them with an antiseptic. If the inflammation becomes severe, you should seek medical help.

My maternal grandmother suffered a centipede puncture wound, just beneath her throat, when she was a small girl, living with her mother and father and siblings in an earthen cellar on the rolling plains of southwestern Oklahoma. Hours from the nearest doctor, her parents could not reach – by a horsedrawn carriage – medical help to relieve her torment.

Ninety years later, she still remembered the pain and localized swelling and the angry- looking infection.


Tarantula Hawk, Stinger

tarantula hawk
The tarantula hawk – the largest of our wasps in
southwestern New Mexico – can deliver perhaps the
most painful sting of any insect in our region.

If provoked, the tarantula hawk – the largest of our wasps in southwestern New Mexico – can deliver perhaps the most painful – though seldom deadly – sting of any insect in our region. As entomologist Justin O. Schmidt said in a paper for the Southwestern Biological Institute, “Tarantula hawks [only the females sting] produce large quantities of venom and their stings produce immediate, intense, excruciating short term pain in envenomed humans.” Should you be unlucky enough to get stung by a tarantula hawk wasp, consider seeking prompt medical help, especially if you have allergic reactions such as a rapid pulse beat, wheezing, swelling or cardiac arrest. With a sting so powerful, the tarantula hawk enjoys a gruesome and fearsome reputation within the animal kingdom.

For example, preparing for reproduction, the female hunts down and attacks a tarantula (hence the wasp’s common name), first paralyzing it with a sting then dragging the body into a den. There, she lays a single egg on the spider’s abdomen. While the tarantula lies in the den’s darkness helpless and inert but alive, perhaps for weeks or even months, the wasp’s egg hatches, and the young grub chews into the abdomen and devours the living spider from the inside out.

With the ability to inflict such a painful sting, the tarantula hawk has effectively insulated itself from attacks by vertebrate predators such as birds or rodents.

Perhaps because of its awe-inspiring reputation, the tarantula wasp was elected to serve as the state insect of New Mexico in 1989.



Scorpion, Another Stinger

The scorpions rank as the most iconic stingers in southwestern New Mexico and, probably, the Southwest. Our bark scorpion – the most venomous of the Scorpionida of North America – can inflict severe pain as well as numbness, convulsions and vomiting that may continue for several days. The sting – especially for young children, the elderly or the ill – can also lead to breathing problems, drooling, slurred speech and other symptoms that signal the need for prompt medical attention.

In our part of the Chihuahuan Desert, you may find scorpions in your home. Over several months some years ago, we discovered several bark scorpions in the house where we lived on the west side of El Paso. In fact, I once got stung on the elbow, through my shirt sleeve, by a bark scorpion that had crawled up the side of a chair in which I was sitting. I did not experience the full effects of the sting, through the cloth, but I certainly checked where I sat after that.

Perhaps because I am a Scorpio who has been stung by a scorpion, I can understand its legendary role in human affairs across the globe. For instance, seven scorpions protected the Egyptian Goddess Isis, the Mistress of Magic and the Speaker of Spells throughout her land. A scorpion’s claws, cut off by the Roman conqueror, statesman and author Julius Caesar, now form the constellation Libra. A giant scorpion, Scorpio, created by the Greek’s great earth goddess Gaia, killed Orion, the gargantuan hunter who had proclaimed his intention to slaughter every animal on earth. The Scorpion men of Babylonia – that fabled land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers – guarded the horizons where the sun rose and set. A scorpion, if trapped, will, they say, sting itself to death, committing suicide, rather than submit to imprisonment.



Harvester Ant, a Stinger and a Biter

A harvester ant, both a stinger and a biter, can get downright mean, especially when mobilizing to defend its colony. It will bite, hang on, then sting repeatedly, sometimes leaving its stinger embedded in the wound.

It can produce intense pain and, possibly, allergic reactions that call for a doctor’s attention.

Disturbed, the ants of a colony may rush collectively, en masse, to defend their home. “Once they begin biting and stinging,” said Amy Brannan, writing for Earth’s Friends, “it can be rather difficult to shake off a red harvest ant colony.”

A harvester ant colony would qualify, it seems to me, as the perfect communist society, in which, as Karl Marx said, all members own all the property collectively, each receiving compensation in accordance with his or her respective role and needs.

When fully established in its communally owned nest, with a population of some 10,000 to 20,000 individuals, the ant community divides itself into two groups, according to Deborah Gordon, Ants at Work. About three quarters of the ants – all female descendants of the queen mother – will operate primarily in the black depths of the nest. The remaining quarter of the population – again, all female descendants of the queen mother – will stay near the surface of the nest. So organized, they go about the complex business of tending their mother, protecting her eggs, nurturing their baby sisters, pampering potential reproductive sisters and brothers, excavating and maintaining labyrinthine chambers, harvesting and storing food seeds, grooming themselves and defending their colony.

All that may have been what prompted a very wise fellow named Solomon to say in his book of Proverbs:

Go to the ant, O sluggard;

consider her ways, and be wise.

Without having any chief,

officer or ruler,

she prepares her food in summer

and gathers her sustenance in harvest.

How long will you lie there, O sluggard?

Kind of makes me wish that our beloved representatives in Washington would study the work ethic of the ants and read the book of Proverbs.



Tarantula, Another Biter

The tarantula comes equipped with two means for taking prey or defending itself.

First, it can inflict painful bites with “mouth parts [that] include the muscular fang bases and the attached backward-pointing fangs…” according to Barron’s Tarantulas and Other Arachnids.

Spiders can be prolific reproducers.

Attacking prey such as an insect or another spider, the tarantula drives its fangs into the body and delivers the venom, which liquefies the insides, according to the Tarantula Facts Internet site.

The tarantula dines on the resultant “soup,” inflicting a fate ironically comparable to the one it may suffer at the hands of the tarantula wasp.

Second, it can use its legs to cast “urticating” (barbed and mildly venomous) abdominal hairs into the face of an animal predator’s face, for instance, a skunk, “causing the eyes to water, the nose to itch, the breathing passages to swell shut, and the lips and tongue to become irritated,” according to Robert J. Wolff, Ph.D., writing for the Carolina Biological Supply Company Internet site.

If a tarantula should bite you – probably after warning you to back off by raising its front legs and displaying its fangs in a “threat posture,” – it will likely inflict a pain comparable to that, say, of the sting of a bee.

It would not call for medical attention unless you suffered an allergic reaction.

I suspect that I, personally, would seek medical help in any event, knowing that the venom of a tarantula’s venom can liquefy the insides of another spider and that the urticating hairs from its abdomen can frustrate attack by a skunk.



Assassin Bug, a Kisser

The assassin bug bears an assortment of nicknames – e.g., Wallapai tiger, conenose bug, bedbug, wheel bug, thread-legged bug, and kissing bug – that suggest its villainy.

An assassin bug species that thirsts for the blood of mammals may prey on wildlife, pets and, sometimes, humans. It may creep into your house in the darkness of night. It may invade your bed, seeking out the most tender flesh, typically your lips, to drive home its tube- like beak and deliver its ominous “kiss.” Rather than inflicting immediate pain, it injects an anesthetic, rendering the wound virtually painless, and it injects an anticoagulant, assuring free blood flow. Taking its fill over several minutes, the assassin bug then withdraws.

An assassin bug drives its beak into its victim’s body, injecting “a very toxic, or poisonous, liquid that affects the nerves and liquefies the muscles and tissues …” according to the Amazing Insects Internet site. “Once the insides of the prey are turned into a liquid, the assassin bug uses its [beak] to suck out the liquefied tissues in much the same way we use a straw to drink a milkshake!”



Walking Stick, a Squirter

Compared to, say, a centipede’s pinch or a tarantula hawk’s sting, the walking stick may appear to hold a weak hand. Indeed, it sometimes even serves as a pet, climbing affectionately over its owner’s hands and fingers.

Creosote bush walking sticks mating. The male is the smaller of the two. They may stay coupled for hours to days or even weeks.

If it feels threatened, however, it can – depending on the species – call on a veritable arsenal of defensive weaponry. With uncanny marksmanship, it can squirt an acidic compound from glands in its thorax, or middle segment, directly into the face and eyes of a would-be attacker. That can cause intense burning, prompting a human victim to seek medical attention.

A walking stick, a male, on a window screen of our house in Las Cruces squirted me in the face once, some years ago, when I leaned in to inspect it. Fortunately, the spray struck my glasses and cheek, not my eyes, and I washed that off promptly, before I experienced any real burning sensation.

Marksmanship notwithstanding, the walking stick has also mastered the art of camouflage. Our common creosote bush walking stick, for instance, mimics its host plant and food source. The adult male resembles a small dead twig. The adult female resembles a larger twig, and her eggs may resemble the seeds of the insect’s host plant. On a branch, during a still sunny day, the walking stick may remain perfectly motionless, its legs outstretched, copying a rigidly fixed twig. During a breezy day, it may sway back and forth by flexing its legs, mimicking a lightly blowing twig.

Resembling a twig so closely, the walking stick would appear ill designed for romance, but beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. A male and female may remain paired for hours or even days and, sometimes, weeks.



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