When you stop and think about all the things in your house that might hurt you – tools, chemicals, boiling water, electricity, etc. – and how we typically still let toddlers run around in them, taking time to educate, it’s a pretty logical leap to recognize we can do the same things outside, rather than isolating ourselves as we do.
With that in mind, I’m trying to highlight the few things to really concern yourself with. The rest… well you should always pay attention to what you’re doing, but the inherent dangers are pretty low. Last week I wrote about the big three plants to avoid touching. This week, I want to talk about “bugs” – more correctly, the family of terrestrial arthropods that can actually hurt you. Among the many, many types of insects, spiders and other related things out there, the “worry list” is fairly small, but worth understanding.
For starters, let me throw this out there – humans are not prey targets for insects, spiders, or other creepy-crawlies (with the couple exceptions at the bottom of this list). What I mean is, the vast majority of buzzing, biting, stinging critters developed those capabilities for one of two reasons – 1) Hunting, and 2) Self-Defense. So if they’re not trying to eat you (they’re not), the reason you’ll get bitten or stung is because these animals think you’re a threat. The old idea that “if you don’t bother it, it won’t bother you”, has a lot of truth here. So it helps to know what they perceive as threatening.
I should also point out that many insect-related injuries that require medical intervention are due to an individual having an allergy to that animal’s venom. If you are allergic to bee stings, to ant venom, etc, everything I’m describing here can be MUCH more serious. If there’s any doubt about your sensitivity, it’s wise to be tested, and carry appropriate medications.
Starting with the least serious and working our way up, centipedes can deliver a nasty bite that injects a small amount of venom. Larger centipedes can bite more powerfully, and deliver more venom, so the pain involved does vary with size. The tail looks nasty, with what appear to be fang-like stingers – but that’s not the business end. Centipedes have modified legs under the head that are used to immobilize prey. It’ll hurt, but it’s not serious. Most people who get bit are gardening, accidentally grabbing them.
Ants live in large colonies that may be built underground, in rotten logs, under leaf litter – typically somewhere cool, damp, and compatible with their desire to dig tunnels and chambers. Like bees, they serve a single queen, and have specialized roles within the colony. Most of the ants you see are workers, out scouting for food. When they find a food source, they lay a chemical trail that other workers can follow, and it’s not uncommon to see a stream of workers running back and forth to the nest, carrying their spoils.
The danger with ants is really concentrated at the nest – if you are perceived as attacking a nest, you will be the subject of a counter-attack. In some species, what you observe may look like panic and attempts to protect the eggs, larvae and the queen (it’s as if you are Godzilla, and they are hapless citizens dealing with an invincible foe). In some species though (like Fire Ants), the response can be in the form of a very rapid, swarming mass of ants intent on biting and stinging, often at the same time, and often with the presence of soldier ants, purpose-built with strong mandibles and formic acid for defense. These bites can be very painful, can cause swelling, pustules on the skin, and you definitely get the point to leave them alone.
You can avoid all this simply by being observant – don’t kick over anthills for fun, don’t set up a tent on an ant nest, and be careful not to lean against trees that are full of ants (some nest under bark).
Bees, Wasps and Hornets
It’s almost not fair to combine these three, as they are different animals. From the common human perspective though, they all sting! Like ants, though, the typical bee is just out looking for food. They’re dangerous only when you threaten a nest.
Honey bees have been elevated on the threat-meter in recent years, due to the spread of Africanized honey bee populations, aka “killer bees”. Africanized bees live on a hair trigger – they have a higher population of “guard bees” in a hive, a much larger threat radius, and a much more aggressive response to intruders, even chasing threats (humans and animals) up to a quarter mile. That said, the bee venom itself is no more potent than that of a European bee, and the Africanized bee is actually smaller – bee for bee, an Africanized bee is actually LESS dangerous than its European cousin, but they make up for it in numbers and persistence. The thought of having to outrun a bee swarm is not pleasant – but in the grand scheme
of things, bee attacks continue to be rare, and only 1-2 people are killed in a typical year. Be alert for hives (which may be in tree hollows or underground burrows) or swarms (normally peaceful, congregational masses of bees that are relocating to a new home) – and keep your distance. If you DO get stung, realize that honeybees sacrifice their lives in defense of the hive – their stingers pull out, eviscerating them in the process, and the stingers are often left in your skin. Don’t grab them with tweezers or otherwise squeeze the stinger, or you’ll just inject more venom. Instead, scrape the edge of a credit card or something similar across your skin – it will grab the stinger and pull it out.
Wasps and hornets are the meat-eating predators of the bee world – what they’re after is typically other insects. They live in underground nests, or construct elaborate paper or mud dwellings in trees, on rock faces, under the eaves of your house. Some are more aggressive than others, and they will actually warn you – if you get close to a nest, any wasps or hornets on guard will spread their wings and “twitch” them at you, until you get close enough to exhaust their patience. The more dangerous “surprise” attacks come from underground hives, such as those made by Yellowjackets (which are a small hornet). If you step on or near a hive entrance, several hornets may emerge immediately to drive you off. If you linger, their response will increase. If you run over a nest with a push-mower, like I did once, you can expect a bunch of angry hornets. Unlike honey bees, wasps and hornets can sting over and over again, and will do so until you get the message.
All spiders have fangs, and all are venomous. This is how spiders immobilize their prey. All spiders will use their fangs to defend themselves, but only if they have no other option – running away is usually their first defense.
However, there are only two spiders in the US that have venom which is medically significant to humans: the Black Widow, and the Brown Recluse. (Sorry to be US-centric here. Suffice to say each part of the world has its own specific dangers. It’s wise to do homework on this topic before travelling!)
The Black Widow is one of the most easily recognizable spider species out there. Only the females are harmful to humans. They vary in size up to about 1/2″ in body length (legs span an inch and a half), are typically shiny, glossy black with a very large abdomen, and a characteristic red or orange hourglass shape on their bellies. Widows build very disorganized webs of sticky thread, and usually hang upside down in the middle waiting for prey to stumble into the web. They hang out in dark corners – tree cavities, fallen logs, woodpiles. I have seen plenty of them in outhouses and porta-potties. They are NOT aggressive, are not immediately hostile in the presence of humans, and will typically try and escape first. But, if you reach into a hole in a tree where you can’t see and accidentally hit one, for example, you may get bitten. Widow venom contains a latrotoxin that causes muscle cramps and abdominal pain. It’s quite effective and symptoms can last for a week, but it’s rarely fatal, and antivenom is readily available these days, and used to take the edge off the pain.
The other spider to be worried about is the Brown Recluse. As its name suggests, it’s somewhat reclusive, and again, not a particularly aggressive spider. They are larger, about twice the size of a Widow, and light brown. They have markings on the cephalothorax (“head”, in technically correct spider-anatomy) of darker brown with a line extending back toward their bulbous abdomens. These darker marks resemble a violin. The other distinctive feature is that unlike most spiders who have eight eyes, a Recluse only has 6, arranged in three pairs – one straight forward, the other two above and to the sides. (Not that you want to be close enough to examine eye arrangements.) Recluses also build irregular webs in dark, dry, undisturbed places, such as decaying tree bark. Their behavior is a bit different from Widows in that at night, they will leave their webs to actively hunt insects, much like a Wolf Spider. Recluse venom is hemotoxic, and necrotic, causing cellular death and large painful lesions of dead tissue – sometimes. You see, Recluse fangs are tiny. They have trouble penetrating fabric, or even the skin. Many bites aren’t felt at all, and many don’t seem to inject venom. So if you do get bitten, you might not know it, and it might not matter. If venom is injected, a sore will develop, and it will hurt, so you’ll know (hopefully) to see a doctor about it. Again, these bites are typically not fatal to the average healthy adult.
Other spiders will bite, as I’m sure you know. Those bites hurt, they swell, they itch, and they’re a good reason to empty your shoes before putting them on when camping – but while you might have an innate fear of things with too many legs, these two (again, in the US) are the only ones you need to be careful of.
Like spiders, all scorpions come equipped with weaponry. In this case, it’s two claws to grip with, and a tail equipped with a venomous stinger. Like with spiders, these are hunting weapons, and scorpions will run away from you if given a chance (again, check your shoes). Even if they do sting, it will rarely do more than hurt, unless it’s one of a variety of Bark Scorpions that live in the desert southwest. These guys, about 3″ long and light brown, deliver a neurotoxin that is extremely painful, causes numbness and loss of motor control/responsiveness to a local area (for example, you might lose feeling in, and control of your hand, if stung there). Symptoms can last 24-72 hours, but regular pain medications and antivenom can help. Conveniently, scorpions tend to glow under ultraviolet light, so if you’re looking for them, a UV light source can be a handy thing.
OK, so now we’re getting to the critters who actually are trying to eat us – or at least our blood. Ticks vary in size from the tiny pinhead of a Deer Tick up to the pencil-eraser size of a Dog Tick, Wood Tick, or Lone Star Tick. All tick bites are dangerous, not because of venom or the bite itself, but because of their ability to carry and transmit blood-borne bacteria and viruses. Fortunately, the physical mechanisms that allow a tick to stealthily
bite and feed from its victims are slow, and this gives us time to act before blood contamination can begin. Ticks sit in wait on tall grass and other vegetation, waiting to grab any warm-blooded animal that wanders by. Once they’ve hitched a ride, they’ll search for the warmest, blood rich areas they can find – the thin skin between fingers and toes, behind ears, in your groin, or armpits tend to be the favorite spots to bite. Once there, they’ll slowly slice you open and burrow into your skin, until their mouth parts can siphon into a blood supply. If they make it this far and actually start to feed (general rule of thumb is about 36 hours from first bite), they can transmit disease, the most worrisome being Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, STARI, or Lyme Disease. Not all ticks are vectors for disease, and the larger ticks seem to not be carriers of Lyme at all. The safest approach – use insect repellent, check for ticks often, and remove them as soon as you find them – be patient, they are strong, and it takes some work to get them loose. Tick keys and other specialized tools are good at the job, but if you catch them early no special tools are needed. Most bites will itch right from the start, but the telltale for these ailments is a bullseye-shaped rash – a raised bump in the middle with an expanding red ring around it. If you see this, see a doctor.
Last, but certainly not least, mosquitoes have been described as the single most deadly animal in the world – again, not because of its own bite, but because of the complex evolution of micro-organisms that use the biochemistry of both humans and mosquitoes to advance their own growth and reproduction, and what we know as a series of parasitic diseases, chief among them, malaria.
Female mosquitoes DO hunt us, they’re actively looking to bite us and extract blood. In that exchange, they can transmit viruses to us (Chikungunya, Dengue, and Zika, primarily from Aedes mosquitoes) or parasitic protozoans (the source of Malaria, from Anopheles mosquitoes). These are all generally thought of as tropical diseases, as the mosquitoes, and the parasites they nurture, don’t survive the cold of hard winters so spread is difficult into colder regions. Though milder temperatures have enabled mosquitoes and their diseases to spread farther from the tropics, they are still predominately tropical issues. Your chances of getting these diseases at all are pretty low and you’re certainly not likely to contract malaria in Ohio.
Our defense is avoid getting bitten. Use repellent, and screen netting. All these diseases are treatable, but can be serious, or have devastating effect (such as microencephaly tied to Zika in pregnant women).
…and that’s it. Yes, there are things that can hurt you. BUT, you can focus your worry on just a handful, and vigilance for those threats will increase your safety level, and comfort level. Don’t worry about spiders, for example – worry instead about Black Widows, and Brown Recluses, specifically. If the spider you see is NOT one of these two, you’re not in any real danger. And even if it IS one of these two, as long as you don’t try to grab it, it’s not likely to cause you any trouble either.
As I said, this is a tough subject for somebody trying to encourage you to spend more time in the outdoors – but I believe learning about the real dangers, demystifying the concern around ALL things with too many jointed legs, can ultimately make you feel more at ease with all those things you do commonly see that just really are part of the ecosystem, and not out to get you. Really, honest, they’re not.
Next time, we’ll switch from too many legs to entirely too few, and talk about everybody’s favorite – Snakes!
Get Out There