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Homeland Insecurity: Initiations, Pedipalps and Negative Geotaxis

{ Archive: the following essay appeared in Java Magazine, and won Honorable Mention for Feature Writing at the Arizona Press Club in 2005 – Photos by Mr. Lee }

In the master bedroom of our relatively contemporary home one might find the mosquito net hanging above the king-size bed out of place—decoratively speaking. Our bedding is sparse, and gone is the handsome bed skirt that once dangled on the wood floor. The only contact our bed has with the floor anymore are the requisite four legs, which each sits in a glass bowl. No, we are not given to superstition or ritual—unless you count turning off all the lights and methodically running a black light up and down the walls, under the bed, and between the sheets every night a ritual.

After our nightly inspection is completed, I slide under the covers and pull the mosquito net around the perimeter of the bed until the ends meet where, for the next eight hours, I fool myself into thinking I’m sealed off from the enemy. Then, at the first light of dawn, even before lifting my head from the pillow, I once again examine my immediate surroundings to see if any intruders joined me during the night. Only then do I entertain the possibility of leaving the cone of security. I untangle myself from the mosquito netting and step directly into a pair of shoes reserved exclusively for me. I’m pleased that I have survived one more night as a desert dweller, where I guess you could call me the intruder.


Scorpions have been around for nearly 400 million years and our house has been here for less than twenty-five of them. Naturally they are still trying to figure out where they fit in. As far as I’m concerned they don’t. I’m not interested in sharing my house and especially my bed with an ancient arachnid—it’s bad enough that a sixty-pound Lab is trying to convince me that she should have that privilege.

Of our combined six encounters with the deadly bark scorpion, four have been in the privacy of our sleeping quarters, while we were in our most vulnerable state—sound asleep and happily tucked into a comfy bed. Scorpions are nocturnal and so, while we slumber, there are several hours where they are free to roam the contours of our blanket, investigate our pillows and stroll leisurely across our backsides while deciding who should wake up first. They aren’t really looking for trouble, they’re searching for insects and spiders to eat and to find mates—none of which should be in our bed. They aren’t aggressive and usually sting in self-defense. Therein lies the problem. Even if one is asleep, and one feels something crawling on one’s derrière, one’s instinct is to swat it away. This is perceived as an offending act by the scorpion, who truly believes he or she is minding his or her own business. The hapless homeowner is guaranteed to get a warning sting, which is not at all a warning.  It is in fact a sting.

My premiere sting went just as described—except I didn’t recognize it as being that of a scorpion. I thought there was an ant in the bed and I mumbled something to the effect that there were ants in the bed. The ant stung me again, and again on the lower leg. The more I swatted the more I got stung. I was barely beyond annoyed when it eventually stopped. What can I say, I’m a deep sleeper. I began to stir, probably to rub my leg. I rolled over and was stung several times more on the lower back. Finally, having had it with the persistent hexapod, I got out of bed and turned on the light. To my hideous surprise there was a scorpion curled up in my spot. I ran around the room screaming hysterically, quivering uncontrollably, and acting like a baby. I was so horrified by the reality of what had been crawling all over me that I forgot I’d been stung, probably a dozen times, by the most venomous of our three species of scorpions.

The bark scorpion, as the name would imply, doesn’t bark—and I, for one, wouldn’t mind if it did. Even a rattlesnake gives a complimentary warning rattle. Instead this scorpion gets its name from its favorite hiding place—under the bark of various trees. And trees we have, so scorpions are plentiful in and around our house.

After I composed myself—and made certain the perpetrator was completely and thoroughly dead—I began to experience severe pain and throbbing everywhere I’d been zapped. The pain intensified quickly. I walked-ran downstairs, trying my best to remain calm, and called Poison Control. I was instructed to place an ice-cold compress, but not ice, on the sting—in my case stings. They asked me a series of questions regarding my symptoms. Yes, it hurt. Yes, it was sensitive to the touch. Yes, I had a tingling sensation in my extremities. In addition, I reported a tingling sensation in my lips—and the scorpion and I hadn’t even come close to kissing. I said yes to having blurry vision—even though it probably had more to do with the fact that my glasses were still sitting on the nightstand instead of my nose. It felt like my throat was constricting. These were all consistent with the sting of a bark scorpion and perfectly normal, I was told. What is perfectly normal about a throat constricting, I may never know. I asked if I should take a Benadryl. Yes, I could if I wanted, but it wouldn’t help. The venom is a complex mixture including neurotoxins, which means it affects the nervous system and explains why it felt like electrical volts were coursing through my body. Even though my stings were limited to the lower half of my body, my nerves were not, and every one of them was on heightened alert. The constricting feeling I was experiencing was just a bunch of nerves I didn’t know I had in the back of my throat. The cold compresses and an over-the-counter analgesic helped alleviate the physical suffering, and I tried to go back to sleep. I felt violated. The hardest part was getting in the bed and turning off the lights.

For the next six hours I was restless and anything that touched my stings produced a shooting pain—even the sheet was too heavy. By morning I have to say the throbbing had subsided but the electricity intensified. The best way to describe what it felt like to walk was the ‘pins and needles’ sensation when a limb falls asleep. Every step triggered a surge of electricity that started at that foot and ascended my leg. My fingertips acted as conduits to send similar volts through my arms. I was sure lights flickered as I walked past. This went on for twenty-four hours. Numbness at the sting sites lasted several more days.

A few months later, sound asleep again, I felt a familiar stinging sensation. This time I levitated three feet above the bed, and found myself standing with the light on and my nightgown thrown across the room—all before I was even awake. The culprit scurried away and tried to escape. We had to find out how they were getting in our bed. My research told me that scorpions can’t climb glass. That’s when we installed bowls under each bed leg, got rid of the bed skirt, and put a good six inches between us and the wall. Our bed was now the safest place in the house, despite the ongoing terrorist activity.

We developed our own Homeland Security Advisory System (HSAS). Low meant monthly scorpion sightings were less than two and limited to non-sleeping quarters. Guarded meant two or more, and Elevated meant bedroom and/or closet sightings, often inside shoes. An Orange alert meant we were at high risk of terrorist attack because we were seeing three or more a week, in the land of nod. Severe risk, otherwise known as a Red alert, always meant the same thing—I got stinking stung.

Before long I was awakened by the sound of someone screaming hysterically, quivering uncontrollably and acting like a baby. It was Mr. Lee. I rushed to his aid as he had done for me so many times before, and all I could think was that I was glad it wasn’t me. He insisted it was still on his back, even though I assured him it wasn’t. He said he heard something drop from the ceiling, onto the blanket just before he was stung—he’s a much lighter sleeper than I am. I knew that, from the precautions we had already taken, it didn’t climb up from the floor or the wall. It turns out the bark scorpion’s specialty is something called negative geotaxis, which is upside-down walking, such as one would on the ceiling. What next? We performed the familiar pain relief ritual while he carried on about a ‘nail gun.’ The very next day I arrived home to find that the aforementioned mosquito net had been installed and a black light purchased—scorpions fluoresce an eerie greenish-yellow color under a black light. Clearly Mr. Lee was taking this terrorism thing seriously now.

That night the mosquito net proved to be a less than perfect solution. Since I don’t know exactly how it happened I can only surmise that a Centruroides exilicauda, as the bark scorpion is scientifically known, was negative geotaxiing and lost its footing. It dropped five feet and landed safely on the newly installed net, where I imagine it was eager to get inside, and it did. It meandered over to my side of the bed, of course, found my forearm and woke me up. It was clear that, unless we discovered a way to keep them outside, more meetings were likely. I ordered the door leading from our bedroom to an outside porch sealed with gaffer’s tape. Between that and our nightly ritual with the black light we have since managed to avoid encounters of the stinging kind with the arachnid community that shares our home.

There are three of us living in the house and now we’ve all been initiated, as we prefer to call it. There’s a certain sense of pride involved and some relief in no longer fearing the first sting. I currently hold the record for the most. It’s a title I don’t wish to relinquish because it would mean someone dear to me would have to be stung several times more. Mr. Lee, some could say, deserves it more than I do. He is the one performing scientific experiments on the prehistoric arthropods, surgically removing stingers, holding captives, and inciting them to fight in a Tupperware arena. Our adoring Lab certainly doesn’t deserve the title. She was actually the first to be stung—on the lip. No doubt she was trying to eat it. Anyone who owns a Lab knows that there is little else on their minds and she is, in fact, obsessed with catching flies, wasps and bees in mid-flight. She has been stung by bees on numerous occasions, and once her snout swelled to double its size. She looked ridiculous, but that didn’t stopped her. She still considers bees a delicacy. But of the powerful scorpion sting, it took only once. She possesses a healthy respect for the diabolical creatures, and has maintained a 12-inch-away rule with regard to scorpions ever since. A phenomenal thing happened, though. She’s developed a sixth sense and seems to know the moment a scorpion enters our living space, which has earned her the name Scorpion Hound. She sits and stares at the wall or the floor as though in a trance, maintaining her 12-inch-away policy, of course. If we are otherwise engaged she will stay in that position without averting her attention, often for a very long time, until we notice her. Experience tells us that 100% of the time she is staring at a scorpion. We jump into action, do away with the pest and she gets a treat. It’s an arrangement that suits all of us.

Safe sex as practiced in the scorpion community is a must. Each and every mating encounter holds the potential for disaster, even more so than in human courtship. In the scorpion’s case, each could easily become the other’s prey. So they hold pedipalps, or pincers while the male dances his date around and, when she’s not looking, drops a sperm packet in front of her. Then he drags her back and forth over his special delivery, while she pretends she has no idea what’s going on. The female then has the option of using the sperm right away, or storing them for up to a year to be used at her discretion. Gestation is almost as long as ours is and, if all goes well, she delivers a litter of 30 live babies. There’s nothing more adorable than the rare sighting of a devoted mother scorpion, some eight months later; her back piled high with youngsters. The entire litter spends their first three weeks riding on her back and, if one of us is fortunate enough to witness this marvel of nature, one of us is likely to lose his or her dinner.

Starting life in this way, it’s no wonder they travel so well. I once brought a scorpion with me to Portland, where the displaced creature crawled out of my duffel bag only to be squashed on the spot. I didn’t want to be the one responsible for unleashing this unsavory element into a city famous for its roses. The emigrant scorpion was only slightly less upsetting than some of our other traveling companions. The mouse who wanted to get out of New York City so desperately that he left his family at the Gramercy Park bar and hitched a ride in my purse all the way back to Arizona. The snake looking for a drier climate left California in a camera bag with nothing but the scales on his back.

Due to the shear number of stings I received on my first encounter I had red welts, but I would come to learn that a single sting produces no mark at all. That alarming fact makes the prospect of a real baby, not someone acting like a baby, getting stung with no visible evidence and no way to explain what has happened a very dangerous one. If a baby or young child has been stung, the Poison Control recommends that they be seen by a doctor. The same applies to the elderly or the very sick.

We’ve learned to co-habitate, mostly because we like where we live at the base of the mountains. Plus it’s nice to know I’m rubbing shoulders with one of the most successful animals on the planet. Around here we don’t like to use the “S” word because if we do, we are practically guaranteed a sighting. Writing this article has me more than a little spooked. I’d say we’re on Guarded alert. But that can change at any moment.

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