The Right Coast

January 06, 2004
Critter watch
By Tom Smith

One of the peculiar things I have come to like about the odd part of east San Diego county I live in is its abundance of wildlife, some of it rather threatening. Of the venomous creatures living around and sometimes in my house, that can deliver bites or stings that range from the painful to the quite possibly fatal, there are scorpions, black widow spiders, brown recluse spiders, velvet ants (both red and 'skunk' variety), numerous wasps, including the potentially very nasty tarantula hawk, the mostly harmless but potentially painful tarantula, and at least two varieties of rattlesnake. When we first moved into a house out here some 10 years ago, I was playing ball with my then 2 year old Luke. As I bent down to pick up the ball, I saw lurking under the play cube the biggest rattlesnake I had ever seen. It was a true monster, a good five feet long and a thick as a man's elbow. Of course I killed it, chopping it into pieces with a hoe which I sharpened quickly with a file. A sharpened hoe is perfect for killing snakes. I generally don't kill creatures, but a giant rattler that could easily kill a child is a special exception. That was the first of many close encouters of the scaley kind. Snakes on the patio, snakes in the pool. For a while we kept a giant rosy boa in the tub and got some great pictures of the kids playing with it. They are harmless, pretty snakes though for some reason they don't smell very good. Most recently, while running, I stepped into the shrubbery for some quick relief, but as I was wearing headphones, I didn't hear any rattle. I looked down to see that I was standing on a juvenile rattlesnake, maybe an inch thick. But fortunately it was a California snake. It just lay there, as if to say "Dude. You're standing on me." I stepped back and we both quietly went our way.

Scorpions are creepy little creatures. One night as I lay on the floor watching "A Man Named Peter" and having the pious, sentimental thoughts that movie tends to inspire, I felt something crawling on me. I brushed at it, not looking at it, then suddenly felt a numbing, stinging sensation on my hand. I looked down to see a demonic little scorpion flourishing its stinger. The little devil! I was kind of glad to have gotten getting stung for the first time by a scorpion over with. The ones in Southern California are no big deal. But in Arizona, Mexico and through the tropics, there are many potentially deadly scorpions, especially of the so-called Centurion variety. Scorpions kill more people every year than any other venomous insect or arachnid, mostly children not wearing shoes.

I don't know anybody who likes black widows. The more you know about them, the less there is to like. The Red Hourglass is a fine little book on the spider and other creatures. Written by a small town Oklaholma journalist, it is also a great example of fine prose, of the plain American variety. The extreme potency of the widow's venom is an evolutionary puzzle. It seems many times more powerful than necessary to kill its prey. Brown recluse spiders are unlovable as well. Their bite is not usually fatal, but can produce painful ulcers that are difficult to treat and slow to heal. Their venom can also cause permanent neurological damage. A local San Diego paper recently carried a story of a high school football star sidelined by a brown recluse bite that produced, according to his coach's helpful description, 'a hole in his leg you could push your finger into, down to the bone.' Thanks for the visual, coach. The $25 a month I spend for the exterminator to spray around the house is money very well spent.

I forgot to mention "killer bees," but we have them too. They are generally no big deal, at least until they surround you in a buzzing cloud of enraged, many stingered fury. A few months ago I came home to discover that an amazingly loud, basketball sized clump of beehood had established itself under the eve of my house. One of my most thrilling memories from childhood was a game we used to play, inspired by a psychologically troubled boy who lived next door, involving sneaking up on a hornet's nest with a garden hose equipped with a pistol-style nozzle. One would spray the nest, then drop the hose and sprint away as the cloud of enraged hornets flew from their nest, which looked like something out of a horror movie. But this nest on my house looked like Africanized bees to me, noisier and more aggressive than bees usually are, or so I thought. The emergency bee people could not come until the next morning, so we followed their instructions--close windows, don't try to hose them--until they were efficiently dispatched the next morning.

More intriguing to me are the wasps. The solitary tarantula hawk is a large black wasp, about 2 inches long, with distinctive orange wings, and a menacing low buzz. Its lifestyle is charming. It stings tarantulas, which paralyzes, but does not kill them. It drags the arachnid back to its hole, then deposits an egg on its stomach. The egg hatches into a cute little wasp maggot, which proceeds to eat the still living, but paralyzed spider slowly, being careful to save the head and other vital organs till last, so its meal remains fresh. Think about that next time you think boiling a lobster is cruel. I read somewhere that Darwin lost his faith in a divine creator of Nature due to his study of wasps. The sting of the tarantula hawk is supposed to be devastatingly painful, enough to induce cardiac arrest in people with heart problems. Speaking of wasps, the so-called 'velvet ant' is in fact not an ant at all, but a wingless wasp. You may have seen these bright red, fuzzy fat ant-looking creatures. They're so cute and furry. Maybe you should pick one up? No, you should not. They pack a wallop, like the worst bee sting I hope you have ever had. I picked up one in our house in a big wad of Kleenex. It stung through the paper and into my finger, producing intense pain and a blister. I let it go outside. Then I stepped on it.

As you may sense, I could go on. Fortunately, my middle child shares my fascination and goes me one better. For his birthday he wanted, among other things, some preying mantis egg pods, which are available, of course, on the internet. The pods sat in their terraium for the longest time, until I was sure they were inert. Another internet insect ripoff. Then one morning I awoke to several hundred very small mantids crawling within and then outside their tank. They were smaller than the airvents and soon made their exit and disappeared into the general insect habitat that is our home. Voracious predators that they are, I'm sure they did fine.