Thursday, November 18, 2010

How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love a Scorpion

Striped Bark Scorpion, photo by Ted MacRae
Earlier this month, one of my favorite blogs, Beetles in the Bush, had a popular post about scorpions. Seeing Ted’s scorpion photoswhich he generously loaned to me—reminded me of my own limited experiences with these arachnids. The difference is I didn’t stick around to take photos. I skedaddled. Except once…

I worked for more than 20 summers at youth camps, most of that time at the same camp in Missouri. The camp is situated in the foothills of the Ozarks, four valleys surrounded by seven hills. West and south-facing slopes have comparatively sparse vegetation; cedar trees (Juniperus virginiana), post oaks (Quercus stellata), and fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica), and an occasional patch of prickly pear cactus. In between are enormous limestone ledges, some like small cliffs, sparse grass, and butterfly weed. When I took a field zoology class from Dave Tylka I saw what was underneath those slabs of limestone. Until that first field trip, I never dreamed of turning over a rock to see if a black widow waited in ambush underneath.

So much for the ecological background.

This particular summer, I worked in the camp office. Along with 3 others, I stayed in a split-level cabin. On the upper level were 2 small bedrooms, an ancient bath and shower, and a phone that never stopped ringing. The lower level was a meeting area/kitchen, furnished with a couch and chairs made of a clunky log framework and a vinyl-covered cushions, fiesta orange. The walls and ceilings were stained lumber. Some described the style as “Early Adirondack.” Others noted its resemblance to a coffin.

We had a bigger problem than orange furniture in our cabin—roaches. They were everywhere, and I’m talking about big roaches. Flying roaches! My horror knew no bounds. The assistant director was a young woman from south Texas, who went by “Tex. She was a fun-loving person, but not one to suffer a fool lightly. And I was being very foolish.

“Well my goodness, it’s nothin’ but a li’l billy ole roach!” she’d say with disdain. “Such a fuss over a li’l billy ole roach, cain’t even hurt nobody. Now if it was a stangin’ scorpion I could understand it, but this is jus’ a li’l billy ole roach!”

The next morning, I pulled a clean T-shirt out of the chest. If you’ve ever spent time at camp, you know the tremendous value of a clean shirt. Out of that shirt leaped a roach! They heard me screaming on the next hillside. Tex was not impressed. “The way you carry on over a li’l billy ole roach, cain’t even hurt nobody. I could understand it if it was a stangin’ scorpion, but that’s nuthin’ but a li’l billy ole roach! Back home, we had stangin’ scorpions. Now if it was a stangin’ scorpion, that’d be different, but this is nuthin’ but a li’l billy ole roach, cain’t even hurt nobody.” We replayed this scene every day. Every day for 4 weeks. It was beginning to undermine my self-confidence.

One evening we had a meeting of camp counselors in the big room on the lower level. There was lots of laughter, some yawning, and a bit of arguing over the campfire plans. Just as the meeting was about to break up, I noticed something scuttling across the floor. The screen door no longer met the threshold and through that gap marched the biggest scorpion I ever hope to see. In a flash, weeks of humiliation overcame my cultural bias against invertebrates, and I called out cheerily, “Oh Tex! There’s someone here to see you!”

She bounded down the short steps into the room, and made eye contact with all eight eyes of our very own stangin’ scorpion. She screamed for days…

You don't find satisfaction like that every day. I grabbed a broom, encouraging “Little Stangie” to climb onto the bristles. Puzzled and amazed counselors watched as I gently carried it out to the dark rocky glade by the door. I didn’t want some insect-phobe trampling this misunderstood arachnid. I might need him again one day.

The only species of scorpion in Missouri is the striped bark scorpion (Centruroides vittatus). Along with other species of plants and animals of the glades, it’s a relic of Missouri’s ancient past as a desert. Missouri Department of Conservation says that our species averages between 1 and 1 and a half inches. No way! This big daddy was twice that! They also note that the sting is no more dangerous than that of a wasp. An article by Darryl Sanders on Missouri University Extension website states that they can be “up to 2.5 inches long.” MDC tell us its favorite meal might be spiders, beetles, or smaller scorpions. And li’l billy ole roaches.


  1. A thoroughly entertaining post!

  2. Enjoyed the story! But I am with you on the roaches and with Tex on the scorpions!

  3. It's not easy to stare a scorpion photo in the face! You've taken the first step in becoming an insect lover!

  4. I loved that same summer home. The sweetest strawberry I ever ate was a small one that you grew in a container on the front porch of that office. You also taught me about pineapple and mint chocolate basils! Thanks- Camille A.K.A Herman

  5. Hey Herman! I had forgotten that I grew those little strawberries at camp--they were great! I still grow the herbs in pots. Thanks for visiting!