It was around 8 p.m. Saturday, June 29. The sun had fallen behind the mountains, leaving a red glow in the distance toward Spur Cross Ranch. The high temperature that afternoon was 114, but by now the temperature had fallen to an almost chilly 105. The red glow faded into dusk, accompanied by the steady sound of crickets, toads, the crunch of footsteps and an occasional, “There’s one!” coming from near the flash of black light.
These were Kevin Smith’s scorpion hunters, a small but hearty crew of volunteer locals. Whereas most of us do our best to avoid the nasty little stinging rascals, Smith is a 49-year-old Carefree resident who actually goes looking for scorps. Smith is a park ranger at Spur Cross, where he leads occasional moonlit scorpion hunts.
According to the University of Arizona VIPER (Venom Immunochemistry, Pharmacology and Emergency Response) Institute, nearly 8,000 scorpion stings are reported annually in Arizona. While the great majority fall into the painful-but-harmless category, VIPER’s website notes, “The sting of the bark scorpion (centruroides sculpturatus) can cause severe nerve poisoning, especially when the victim is a small child.” Scorpions are hibernators, and at their most active in the summer months, when they are most likely to come in contact, painful contact, with humans.
A hypothetical “Scorpions Welcome” sign can be in the form of a crack below the front door or a hole in a window frame or drywall. Once inside your home, the stinging sons-of-the-desert can make their way to your kitchen, bathtub or even – gasp! - bed.
Perhaps because of a protective, mothering instinct, or perhaps due to the creepiness factor, women seem to have a particular hatred for scorpions. “Generally, we get calls from mothers or husbands of worried mothers,” said Ben Holland, owner of northern Scottsdale-based Scorpion Sweepers. “The calls are from new homeowners or new parents … ‘I have a newborn, I just saw a scorpion in my house, what can I do?’ We go up there and clear them out, then give them tips on how to keep (scorpions) away.” One of the best tips, for the squeamish: Put the feet of your bed and furniture in Mason jars, so the scorpions can’t climb up the legs.
The Scorpions Sweepers’ record: “We caught 132 at this one home in Paradise Valley in a single night.” Holland and his crew show up to remove scorpions wearing gloves, long sleeve shirts and snakeproof boots. How many times has he been stung? “Never.”
Same goes for the Spur Cross ranger. “I’ve never been stung. Guess I’ve been lucky since I’ve lived here most of my life,” said Smith. Save for the night hunts, he says he doesn’t normally come across them. “Unless I’m out flipping rocks or doing trail work, I rarely see them,” he said. “They show up really well under a black light. Otherwise, they’re really cryptic and blend in well with their environment.”
When that environment is a home, it could lead to trouble for the human. Of the three common scorpion types around here, Smith said the bark scorpion is the most frequent home invader. “They’re really slender, so it’s easy for them to climb under doors and in windows. The bigger desert hairy scorpions, they get to be 4 to 5 inches long. They don’t get into houses unless people leave their windows wide open.” The third kind, stripe tailed scorpions, are between the other two in size.
While Smith had more than 100 people on a moonlit hike the week before, it looked like the late June scorpion search was going to be a bust. Then, right around the start time, a car drove up with three hunters, followed by another car with three more for the posse. Smith told the crew that the barks might be the smallest, but they pack the biggest punch in their little stingers. “They’re the most dangerous,” he said, rather solemnly. “Especially with infants and the elderly – they can cause real damage.” The bark scorpions deliver not just a painful sting, but also an injection of venom. While the stripe-tailed and desert hairy scorpions will also attack humans, “it’s more like a honey bee sting.”
Though it was slow spotting at first on a hike that crossed over the seasonally-dry Cave Creek down to a man-made pond, as darkness fell the scorpion sightings multiplied. A contrast to Smith, who moves and speaks in the slow, measured pattern of a professional student of nature, there was Andrew Isho, a pint-sized 11-year-old ball of energy, dancing like a firefly ahead of the pack of scorpion hunters, flashing his black light every 20 yards or so and calling “stripe tail” or “there’s another bark.” His 14-year-old brother Greg and mother Sandy were out on the hunt as well, plus three adult males. None of them, not even the professional spotter, proved as adept at spotting the scorps as Andrew.
Arguably the coolest find of the night was a plump bark scorpion; it turned out to be a new-mother, covered with two dozen of her newborn scorpies. The stoic Smith grew just a bit excited about this, pausing to take photos. Later on, the scorpion hunters got fired up over the sightings of a few desert hairy scorpions, which are gigantic! Well . . . not like Hollywood movie gigantic, and if you weren’t looking hard for them with a black light you probably wouldn’t see them, but still much larger than the barks.
Now, as anyone who has seen “Survivorman” can tell you, scorpions can make a tasty wilderness snack. In an episode filmed in the Sonoran Desert somewhere in Arizona, Les “Survivorman” Stroud demonstrated how to trap a scorpion, cut its stinging tail off, pop it into your mouth and munch away. Another local wilderness man says the best way to do it is cook them up. “What you do is get some salted butter so it doesn’t go bad, and some brown sugar. Take a jar and within 15 minutes you’ll have about 30 of them. Cut the tail off and put them in the jar. Fry up the butter, add the brown sugar, and dump the scorpions in the frying pan for about 30 seconds. That caramelizes them.”
None of the Spur Cross scorpion searchers had been bitten by, or bitten into, a scorpion. After the nearly two-hour hike-and-spot, the Isho boys were asked what they thought of the blacklight hunt. “It was fun,” they answered, in unison. They had seen several dozen of the feared scorpions, and learned that they are mostly about minding their own business, and looking for insect snacks.
Isho mom Sandy had a good time, but remained a scorpion cynic. “If they’re in my house,” she said, cool but firm, “they’re going to die.”