William Hayes begins his quest after the sun has set. He sets out into the southern California desert with nothing but a blacklight in search of biological treasure.
Although the UV light does not adequately illuminate the way, it will aid him in spotting his stinging, pinching, eight-legged prey: scorpions.
The biology professor from Loma Linda University sweeps his blacklight ahead of him and catches one running out from under a rock, its body blazing neon green under the UV rays.
It’s now just a matter of identifying the species, documenting behavioral data, and possibly returning to the lab with a few live individuals scooped into portable containers to collect and study their venom.
He’s been stung numerous times during the process, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally, so it’s safe to say he knows a lot about the animals he finds so fascinating.
And what he knows will come in handy when you’re dealing with scorpions.
Basics of Scorpions
Hayes’ natural habitat in southern California, where scorpions dwell and breed (though they also reside as far east as North Carolina and occupy many states in between, mostly dry southwest and western regions in New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, California, Arizona, and Texas).
Because of this overlap, he has a lot of opportunities to research them, their venom, how they use it in the environment, and how it differs between species.
The majority of scorpions are 2 to 3 inches long and are carnivores, which means they eat insects, tiny reptiles, and even snakes.
They use their pedipalps (also known as pincers) to catch their meal, saving their poisonous tail stinger from paralyzing larger animals.
Scorpions are invertebrates that belong to the arachnid family, and they’re linked to spiders and ticks. They’re most active during the summer months, hunting at night and hiding in the shade during the day.
They hibernate in the winter, reducing their metabolism to allow them to go for up to a year without food, which is one of the reasons they can survive in such harsh conditions.
“The sting of most species is no worse than that of an ordinary bee,” Hayes adds of their venom.
Their appearance is much more repulsive than their venom.
He knows this because, instead of using dead mice or membrane-covered beakers to collect venom, he will occasionally elicit defensive responses with his fingers.
They’re trying to figure out whether scorpions provide dry bites (stings without venom) or always wet bites (stings with venom), whether there are sexual differences in defensive stings, how much venom arrives with each sting, and whether scorpions can control how much venom they inject (they can).
But don’t worry about Hayes and his fingers: just around 30 of the world’s 2,500 scorpion species have venom strong enough to harm most humans, and only one species with potentially lethal venom lives in the United States: the Arizona bark scorpion.
However, just because a scorpion sting is unlikely to cause serious injury does not mean you should avoid scorpions.
How to avoid being stung by scorpions
Fortunately, staying away from these tiny arachnids is simple. Scorpions detect vibrations using microscopic hairs on their legs and bodies, and will most likely scurry into a safe hiding place before you even notice them.
“They don’t want anything to do with us,” says the narrator. They’re reclusive and prefer to be left alone, according to Hayes. Consider yourself lucky if you see one during the day.
Carry a blacklight at night to make it easier to detect the creatures, as their brown or black bodies mix in with the landscape under regular spotlights.
Hidden scorpions can still sting if you unintentionally enter their haven, so be careful where you lay your bare hands and feet in their native habitats, which are often arid and rocky, and be cautious when reaching into crevices or under rocks.
Climbers should proceed with caution because they can live on cliffs or in trees.
Even if you’re not camping or trekking, if you live in a scorpion-infested area, shaking off shoes, jackets, and boxes left outside before putting your hands and feet in is a good idea.
What to do if a scorpion stings you
Don’t be alarmed. While scorpion stings can be severe, Hayes claims that the majority of them have no long-term implications and that the pain will subside within 10 minutes.
However, they can induce bruising, edoema, and heat at the injection site. Venom can cause anaphylaxis or anaphylactoid reactions in a tiny percentage of allergic people.
If you discover out you’re allergic, bring an epinephrine auto-injector with you when you go scorpion hunting. The good news is that if you’re allergic to bees, you won’t be allergic to scorpion venom.
Whether you’re allergic or not, try to avoid being stung by the same scorpion more than once in a row, as subsequent stings can be more dangerous.
According to Hayes, the venom in the first sting is often clear and has a lot of potassium ions that induce pain, but the venom in successive stings is more likely to be milky in color and include a higher concentration of proteins that are likely more harmful than the first sting.
Most scorpions in the United States will only sting you once, and you’ll be well in a matter of minutes.
But, especially in little children, keep a lookout for signs and symptoms including difficulty breathing, powerful muscular spasms, intense pain that doesn’t go away, nausea, or vomiting.
If you or a companion suffers from any of these symptoms or has been stung more than once, visit a hospital to see if anti-venom is required, albeit anti-venom is only available for Arizona bark scorpion stings.
That species may be found in Arizona, southwest New Mexico, southern Nevada, and eastern California, and can be characterized by its dark yellow-tan hue, long, slender tail, and narrow pincers.
If it stings you, Hayes advises going to the hospital if your symptoms “become at all alarming.”
Even scorpions have a place in the world.
Scorpions, on the other hand, aren’t just grouchy recluses who strike out if you come too close.
Scientists have discovered that scorpion venom can be used to treat human brain tumors and to stop cancer cells from developing by blocking their signals.
Researchers have also discovered that the pallid bat and grasshopper mouse are immune to scorpion venom, and they are examining these species to determine if they could be the secret to human pain treatment.
And, as terrible as scorpions are presented on TV and in movies, there is simply no evidence to support widespread fear: there had been fewer than four deaths in the United States in the previous 11 years as of 2018. (there are, of course, more fatalities in countries with scorpions that have more toxic venom).
So, the next time you see one of these arthropods in the wild, don’t flee in terror. “They are crucial components of the environment, and they are not out to get us,” Hayes explains. Simply maintain a safe distance and allow them to enjoy their lives.