Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Beware, Scorpions !

When you think about scorpions (as I am sure you often do) you usually picture one of those old westerns set in a dry southwestern desert with a hapless cowboy waking up with a deadly scorpion slowly crawling across his forehead. Well, think again! You don’t have to go to Arizona to find scorpions. We have them right here in Fairfield Glade. The picture to the left is the surprise that I found in my house a month ago.

When I first moved to Texas 20 years ago I couldn’t wait to find my first live scorpion. One evening I was working late at the office, and as I was leaving I found a scorpion on the stairs near the parking garage. I scooped it up on a piece of paper and took it back into the office where there were just 2 friends still there. We decided to put Mr. Scorpion in an empty soda bottle so I could take him home. The little guy wouldn’t walk through the small opening on his own, so I brilliantly decided to roll him up in a piece of paper and create a tube through which I could then blow him into the bottle. After being careful to make sure he was on the far end of the tube, and being especially careful to not inhale, I blow-gunned him into the bottle. However, after looking into the bottle we didn’t see him and had no idea where the scorpion ended up. If you enjoy seeing three grown men dancing, spinning, dusting off, and screaming, you would have enjoyed seeing us that evening. Luckily there was no one left in the office to witness the spectacle and happily, after looking closer, we found our scorpion safely inside the bottle and all was calm again.

We didn’t need to panic like we did because the scorpions in Texas, as well as the ones here in Tennessee, aren’t deadly. In fact their sting is usually no more painful or dangerous than a bee sting. There are potentially deadly scorpions in Arizona and other parts of the world, but not in Tennessee.

There are two kinds of scorpions in Tennessee. The native one is the Plain Eastern Stripeless Scorpion. It is 1-2 inches long and reddish to dusty brown. They usually like moist areas under leaves or bark or rocks. Unfortunately, they also tend to find their way into our houses from time to time in search of crickets, ants, cockroaches, spiders, etc. The best way to keep scorpions out of your house is to eliminate the things that they eat from your house.

The other kind of scorpion in Tennessee is the same kind normally found in the southwest…The Striped Scorpion. They were “accidentally” introduced into Tennessee at some point. (It wasn’t me!) Both types look relatively similar, but don’t worry about telling them apart; the Striped Scorpions are no more dangerous than our native scorpions and I am not even sure we have them in Fairfield Glade.

There have been a few Plain Eastern Stripeless scorpions found in my neighborhood and quite a few more found a couple of blocks away, but I am guessing that most of you have never run across one, and probably won’t.

However, if you have had any scorpions in your house, walking around barefoot at night is the best way to find the next one. Almost all stings are a result of stepping on one. Scorpions are known to like to hide in dark moist places like shoes. I always shake out my shoes in the garage before inserting my foot, just out of habit. This is common practice in Texas.


Scorpions normally only come out at night, and one really cool thing about them is that they all glow iridescent green under a blacklight (UV light). If you had a portable blacklight and walked around a cowboy camp at night, you could easily spot green glowing scorpions crawling across someone’s forehead before it stung them. Have fun spotting scorpions and save lives at the same time…what a great combination!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


This is the season for hornets and wasps and there are several kinds keeping us edgy this time of year. A couple of them are kind of interesting and one is really cool.

The reason that there are so many wasps and hornets in August and September is due to the uniqueness of their life cycle. The hundreds of hornets in a nest all die in the fall, and only newly fertilized queens survive the winter. In the spring, each surviving queen starts her own colony, and as the summer goes on the nests grow, until they reach peak population about this time each year.

During the spring and summer, wasps and hornets are meat eaters and feed on insects like flies, bees, and even grasshoppers. In fact, because they kill so many other insects, hornets are protected in Germany and they are illegal to kill there. If that were the case here most of you would be in jail. But, their diet changes in late summer to nectar, sugar, and fruit, and that is usually when they begin getting into trouble with us at picnics and at hummingbird feeders.

Here is a rundown on the most common types of wasps and hornets that you are most likely to encounter here in Tennessee.

Paper Wasps. This is the black or reddish brown wasp that builds a little nest on a small stalk usually under your roof overhang or under your deck. They are not too aggressive but their sting is supposedly the most powerful of the other wasps or hornets mentioned here. There are usually only a few individuals per nest.

Bald-faced Hornets. These are the guys that build that grey football sized paper nest on a tree branch or on your house. They are non-aggressive unless you get too close to their nest and with several hundred occupants you don’t want to get too close. I have read that when they attack they like to go straight for your face, but I haven’t personally verified if that is true. If you have a personal experience, let me know.

Yellow Jackets. These are the most aggressive wasps and I can attest to that. I have been stung twice in two weeks while minding my own business. Several fellow hikers have been stung too. Yellow jackets nest in the ground or in hollow trees and they defend their nest viciously. Apparently, I got too close to an unseen nest. Like all wasps, Yellow jackets and other wasps can sting repeatedly (unlike honey bees) because their barbless stinger can be extracted and used again and again. If you are stung, get away from their nest…fast!

European Hornets. These look almost exactly like Yellow Jackets except they are much bigger…about 1 ½ inches compared to the Yellow Jackets 5/8 inch. These were immigrants from Europe about 1840 and they have spread over most of the Eastern U.S. and beyond. They first reached Tennessee in 1973. European Hornets are normally not aggressive unless they are defending their nest (usually in a hollow tree but sometimes in your attic). The unique thing about these guys is that they sometimes hunt at night as well as during the day and they also are attracted to lights. Two of my neighbors have European Hornets bombarding their windows every evening. An electric bug zapper does an unbelievable job on them.

Cicada Killers. These are cool. They are about the same size as the European hornets but not as bright yellow. They appear this time of year about the same time as the annual “dog days” cicadas. This is the cool part: The female cicada killer stings and paralyzes a cicada. Then she has to drag her heavy prey up a tree to get enough elevation to fly with the heavy cicada to her underground den. There she lays an egg on the alive but paralyzed cicada so that the wasp larva will have a fresh and ready food supply. It is a tough world out there; being an insect isn’t for sissies.

All of these hornets and wasps pack a pretty good sting but for most people it just hurts for a few minutes and then swells and itches for a few days. But about 5% of individuals are highly allergic to insect stings and one sting could be life threatening. If you are one of them, you know what an Epi-pen (epinephrine syringe) is, and probably have one. If you have had a severe reaction to a sting in the past, you better talk to your doctor before the next sting. For the rest of us, we will just be on high alert and a little edgy until the cooler weather comes and the stinging insects take a break until next year.