OF THEE I STING
On a moonless, June night, a purple light bobs and hovers along the barbed-wire fence marking the northern boundary of the Gila River Indian Reservation on the far side of South Mountain Park. Joe Bigelow is hunting for scorpions, scanning his ultraviolet lamp across the desert gravel until a scorpion pops out of the blackness, a slender three inches long and fluorescing green as a child's glow-in-the-dark toy.
"Smeringerus mesaensis," he calls out, identifying his prey. It's a fairly benign little scorpion, a sand burrower with a sting not much worse than an ant's. Bigelow snags it by the tail with a long pair of tweezers painted Day-Glo orange; he snaps on his headlamp and shines its beam on the squirming little critter, which is as bland and tan as the sand it lives in. Bigelow drops it into a plastic bag, shuts off the headlamp and trots up the ridge line looking for more. Bigelow, 52, is a ruggedly professorial-looking fellow with creases for eyes and a graying beard. He's on sabbatical from his day job as biology professor at Arizona Western College in Yuma, living in Tempe to work on the dissertation he should have written 20 years ago, when he was a graduate student and Arizona State University was in its golden age of scorpiology.
Back then, the hills south of South Mountain Park were scorpion heaven, and Bigelow had somehow expected them to be unchanged. But driving down Chandler Boulevard, he was surprised to find seven miles of ersatz-Spanish housing developments, indistinguishable except for the nuances of red in their tile roofs. The scorpions are probably still there, burrowing in the backyards and the attics of the homes, where they are off-limits to scorpion hunters. At the end of the road, he had to four-wheel across a mile of bulldozed drainage and development to find this patch of virgin desert.
"Hadrurus arizonensis," he calls out when the black light scans across a giant hairy scorpion, a large but fairly impotent fellow. It scuttles under a rock before he can snag it with the tweezers. Bigelow marches on up the hill, stepping casually among the stones in the darkness, across the kind of terrain in which one expects at any moment to be startled by the shhrrr of a sidewinder. As if intuiting the thought, Bigelow launches into a story.
"I was down in Baja in 68," he begins, in the nothing-scares-me tone of the field biologist. He was on a collecting expedition made up of ASU and San Francisco State University students and professors. "This one guy was an entomologist doing research on thin-waisted wasps." He pronounces the name with such intentional daintiness that he almost lisps. "We tried to get everyone out at night collecting scorpions, and he wasn't too hep on it, but his major professor was, so he had to be out there."
You know what's coming next; the poor fool was walking along a ridge line when the first rattler sounded. "He jumped straight up in the air, and when he came down, a second rattler rattled. He jumped again, and a third snake struck at the leg of his jeans. That did it. He took off down that hill, and every place he stepped, he heard rattlers rattling. There must have been 25 of them." Bigelow pauses for drama: "He decided to stick with wasps after that--because he could collect them in the daytime."
It's an overture to other collecting stories. Bigelow was hiking after dark in the mountains near Quartzsite, where he'd identified a new scorpion species. He waved his black light in front of him and realized he wasn't getting any reflection back at all. "I stopped and turned on my headlight," he says, "and there was nothing in front of me but space. I slowly scanned the light towards my feet and saw I was standing on the edge of a cliff."
In 1970, Bigelow was on a week's trip, collecting woodland scorpions beneath the Mogollon Rim. Down near Sycamore Canyon, he was following a game trail through thick, thick brush after dark when, suddenly, a deer that had been cowering on the path broke cover beneath his feet. Before his heart even had time to stop, he was astride the animal, then launched toward the treetops by the adrenaline payload.
"I've listened to mountain lions tracking me down a ridge," he says. "I've run into black bears at night. Nothing's ever scared me like that brown, hairy beast coming up under my crotch and lifting me off the ground." He landed in a quivering heap on the trail, and when he got his wits about him, he hiked back to his car and drove straight home.
Tonight, there are no animals more startling than a deer mouse scampering underfoot, an owl fluttering past at head height, a sleek, well-fed coyote circling wide. The evening's take comprises about 25 scorpions representing five species. They writhe and tangle over each other inside the bag.
"If we found a nice, sandy wash, we'd have ten times this many," Bigelow says with a trace of disappointment in his voice.
@body:What is a zoologist but a grown-up version of a kid who likes to keep bugs in jars? Bigelow's temporary home is a closet-size, one-room apartment just off Mill Avenue that has been furnished with grad-school junk and scorpions: Tee shirts bearing prints of them hang from the curtain rods, the shelf and tabletops hold bottles and bottles of specimens, 500 to 600 crawly critters floating in formaldehyde, brown ones, yellow ones, big ones, small ones. The 1950s-vintage kitchen table has been converted into a makeshift desk; on top are 25 little plastic boxes that hold live scorpions. The box lids are taped shut, because scorpions are escape artists, and can figure out how to pop them off using their tails and pincers. Bigelow's 11-year-old daughter, Chandra, likes to name the live specimens, so the boxes are labeled "Diggers," "Michelangelo," "Sparky," the names she wrote on the tape the last time she visited from Yuma.
Bigelow snaps open one of the plastic cases, pulls out a five-inch-long giant hairy scorpion and lays it on the back of his hand. It flexes its big tail languorously. "He's really docile," Bigelow says. "And he can't tell the difference between one surface and another." Scorpions can't see, either, but they can detect minute levels of light, which send them scuttling for cover. On some primeval level, they're aware of their visibility as a high-protein link in the food chain, even as snacks for fellow scorpions.
And so they avoid each other. Mating, as might be expected, is what the police would refer to as "a domestic": The male tries to sting his lady friend into submission. He grabs her pincers tight in his own, locks his jaws on hers. As he dances her around, he gets so excited that he shoots his load. Then he pulls her over the top of the "sperm packet" and pretty much pushes her onto it, then takes off as fast as he can, because the female is mad as hell and getting the munchies--especially since she's eating for dozens now. If he's not quick, he's lunch. The young are born live, not hatched, and they cling to the mother's back until they figure out that they might be lunch themselves. Another of Bigelow's plastic boxes is crawling with newborn scorpions, quarter-inch pieces of fuzz with pincers. They look like crab lice from hell.
There are probably more than 2,000 scorpion species worldwide, 34 of them in Arizona. Like sharks, they are primitive yet efficient beasts, unchanged through the millennia. "You have to realize that they're twice as old as the oldest dinosaurs," Bigelow says. "They've been around 450 million years. They developed an ecological niche very early and they maintained it."
They are virtually indestructible, the perfect bachelor pet, because they can go without food for a year, can stay under water for eight hours at a time. They can be frozen in a block of ice, then thawed out; they can be sprayed with insecticide without ill effects. They simply hunker down in their shells, close down the hatches and lower their metabolism until better times arrive.
Most scorpions are burrowers; when their habitat is torn up by development, they move on. One species, Centruroides sculpturatus, also known as a bark scorpion, doesn't dig, and instead lives under piles of debris--usually hanging upside down, so when you pick up the debris, it's still clinging to it. Or it insinuates itself into cracks and crevices in garden walls, under tree bark or in your attic, your shoes or your bedsheets.
Once they move in, they're hard to evict. The exterminators come during the day, after all, and the scorpions come out at night. You can't spray their food, because scorpions are carnivorous and only eat live prey.
Doug Bingham, a local exterminator who calls himself "Doug the Bug," recalls catching one in a home, putting it in a cup and covering it with chlordane, a poison so toxic it's no longer legal. After a half-hour, Bingham tossed the contents of the cup into the backyard--and the scorpion sauntered off into the desert.
@body:The good news is that most scorpion stings are no more troublesome than a wasp's. The bad news is that Centruroides, the little bastard that gets into your home, is very toxic. But he's not lethal. "We say it's 'potentially medically important'--we don't use the term 'deadly,' because it's not true," says Marilyn Bloom of the microbiology department at ASU, who coordinates a program there to manufacture scorpion antivenin. It's the only such program in the country, because of all scorpions in the United States, Centruroides is the only one that is markedly toxic. The Sonoran Desert areas of southern Arizona are the only regions in the country that have significant Centruroides populations. And he's in your home.
Centruroides doesn't care about up or down, so one might be happily running upside down across your bedroom ceiling and trip, and, since gravity makes no exceptions, it lands on your bed.
You feel something brush against your arm while you're sleeping and you swat at it. Centruroides responds with a hammer-strike slap of the tail up and over its back. There's a sudden burning, hot as a match head, then a tingling up your arm, a stabbing pain under your armpit. In most cases, that's as bad as it gets.
It might wear off in a few hours--or a few days. How sick you become depends on your body weight. However, if you're highly susceptible to the venom, you suddenly can't seem to clear your throat. You start drooling uncontrollably. Your eyes start rolling independently of each other. You become unbearably, intolerably, absolutely hypersensitive to light and touch and sound. It's like a bad drug trip, "only it lasts longer," says Bloom. Children get sickest, because of their small size. They thrash wildly, their muscles contracting with painful spasms. Centruroides' venom is a witches' brew of 30 or more nerve toxins that interfere with sodium and potassium at the cellular level--essentially, the body's electrical system. Neurons fire wildly in the muscles, like a live wire in a puddle of water. The different fractions of toxin within the mix are intended to affect different species--one for insects, one for amphibians and so on. Curiously, the venom affects dogs but not cats. Birds are oblivious, but the carnivorous grasshopper mouse usually has to lop off the last digit of the scorpion's tail before it can eat the scorpion.
The ASU antivenin is made by injecting scorpion venom into goats, then extracting blood loaded with antibodies and reducing it to serum. Generally, it's only used on children. For adults who have severe reactions to scorpion bites, physicians may, as often as not, prescribe antihistamines and sedatives. Bloom distributes about 150 vials of the antivenin serum to hospitals across the state.
"It seems Phoenix has the greatest percentage of scorpion stings," says Dr. Donald Kunkel, medical director of Samaritan Regional Poison Center. Of 2,000 scorpion calls his center receives over the course of the year, most are from Phoenix and Tucson. And most are not serious.
"We haven't been able to document a mortality in the last 15 years," Kunkel says.
@body:The day Joe Bigelow moved into his Tempe apartment, he met a scorpion in his bathroom. It might seem a fitting housewarming greeting, but Bigelow thought otherwise.
"I study scorpions, but I prefer not to sleep with them," he pronounces. Still, when he ran low on Centruroides specimens, he only needed to take his black light out to the fence behind the apartment complex to harvest a bumper crop.
From Bigelow's collections, other scientists have described and named at least 15 new species. Bigelow, in effect, discovered them, but never bothered to publish his findings. He's collected from Mexico to British Columbia, snagging examples of more than 75 species. The bulk of his collections now resides at American Museum of Natural History in New York City. But since he has never published a paper himself, he has no academic name to speak of.
Bigelow grew up in Eagar, in the White Mountains near the New Mexico border. He came to ASU in the early 1960s as a premed student. He married young, and when his wife's job took her to Tucson, he followed and enrolled in graduate school at the University of Arizona. When his wife was transferred back to Phoenix, Bigelow intended to go to medical school, but he was offered a graduate assistantship if he enrolled in a Ph.D. program in zoology. In those days, ASU was a center for the study of venomous animals, partly because of its geographic location, but mostly because of the head of its biology department, an academic aristocrat named Herbert Stahnke.
Stahnke may well have been the country's foremost expert on venomous animals, especially scorpions. He started antivenin research programs at ASU and put on dog and pony shows for winter visitors in which he would handle snakes and scorpions and hold forth on their habits and habitats. He had his own local TV show and a coterie of contacts high in Arizona politics. And a few enemies.
He tangled with local medical experts because of the pamphlets he wrote about emergency treatment for scorpion bites. Within his own department, he was called an "armchair scientist," because he rarely went into the field himself, but instead paid a bounty for specimens brought into his labs. His colleagues suggested that he would coerce graduate students to put his name on their research publications as principal author. Although he caused a rift in the department, those same colleagues and students, in retrospect, admit that Stahnke made great contributions to scorpiology. He identified several new scorpion species, and was head of the department in the late 1960s, during the biggest breakthrough in scorpiology--the discovery that scorpions fluoresce under black light.
@body:Stahnke's antivenin program at ASU's Poisonous Animals Research Laboratory required hundreds of scorpions to be milked for their venom. The man responsible for collecting them was an animal curator named Lorin Honetschlager, and he would find them by rolling rocks and peeling the bark from trees.
Honetschlager is a raucous man with a sailor's vocabulary, retired since 1987 and living in Mesa.
"My wife collects crystals," he recalls. "This boy in the neighborhood would come to our house and trade crystals for scorpions, which he would embed in plastic. One day, he had a black light to show my wife how the crystals fluoresce. As he walked by me, the scorpions got a funny color. I said, 'Gimme that,' and grabbed the light, and that's how I first discovered it."
In the department lab, Stahnke had some ultraviolet lights, which were used to check lab animals for ringworm. Honetschlager took one collecting that night. "Usually, I went out during the day and peeled bark. I'd get 25, 50, maybe 100 on a good day. But that night out on Price Road, the trees lit up from em, and I could triple my take in just an hour."
Even in retirement, Honetschlager collects and milks scorpions for the ASU antivenin project. The milking is done by administering a tiny electrical shock to the scorpion and catching the venom in a pipette. "You get three drops on a good milking," he says, "but it takes about 30,000 milkings to get a gram of venom."
His is not a profession without risks. When he was on staff at ASU, he would keep Rubbermaid-style tubs full of scorpions with about 300 specimens per tub. Once, he was removing several of the tubs from the lab when disaster struck.
"I went out first with my tray and this asshole came behind me," he begins. The lab assistant tripped, the lid came off his tray and he propelled the whole load of scorpions onto Honetschlager.
"Who do you think was in front of me?" Honetschlager says. "Stahnke! I thought he was going to die. He turned white and sat down and just crumbled. You don't want that many scorpions on you.
"Me?" he continues. "I did the smoothest, son-of-a-bitchin' striptease you ever saw." He took off everything, right there in the hall, and didn't get stung. "Took me six months to get all those scorps out of the lab, though."
As an indicator of the casualness with which the researchers treated scorpions, Neil Hadley, a zoology professor at ASU since 1966, recalls that they used to mail live specimens to other researchers by sticking them in cardboard mailing tubes. Since scorpions are so hardy, it took little more precaution than coding the tubes so that the recipients would open them carefully. The contents were never marked on the outside, however, because of the certainty that the U.S. Post Office would have refused to handle the shipments.
And so Hadley felt safe putting a mailer containing about 100 Centruroides in his suitcase for a trip to Michigan. He was staying with friends there, and when he put his suitcase up on the bed in the guest room and opened it, he was dismayed to find that the ends had come off the tube.
"The scorpions were cruising all over my clothes," he says. "I closed the suitcase like it had cancer." After a flustered moment, he took the whole load to the bathroom and shook out each piece of clothing over the bathtub.
But since he never knew how many scorpions he had in the first place, he never knew if he had found them all or if some of them had escaped into the friends' house.
@body:As the rift caused by Stahnke grew within the department, an entomologist named Mont Cazier approached Joe Bigelow about becoming Bigelow's adviser. For Bigelow it was a godsend, because, whereas Stahnke was imperious and never left the lab, Cazier was a student's best promoter; his students, in fact, were so fond of Cazier that they named three scorpion species and a genus after him.
During the summers, when there were no classes to be taught, Cazier would pay Bigelow to be his research assistant. They would go on long field trips, and while Bigelow would collect insects for the professor during the day, Cazier would collect scorpions for the student at night. All the while, Cazier would pop field quizzes on Bigelow, asking what this plant was good for, what that animal ate.
Stahnke had been interviewed by National Geographic magazine, so Cazier lined up Life magazine, and he and Bigelow posed for a 1970 article titled "A Batch of Bug Finders," in which Bigelow, at age 29, was already credited with identifying six new scorpion species.
The Life story led to an invitation to be on the game show To Tell the Truth, in which a panel of over-the-hill celebrities tried to guess which of three contestants was who he said he was and which were impostors.
Bigelow flew to New York a day before the show and spent five hours briefing the two actors who were going to pretend to be scorpion experts. In the end, only one panelist--Kitty Carlisle--was able to identify Bigelow as the real thing. As Bigelow remembers it, "She said I was too tan to be an impostor from New York."
If he had become one of the three or four top scorpiologists in the country--the field was so wide open then"--he had no desire to follow the usual, publish-or-perish cycle. "I had the knowledge, but I really didn't feel I needed to share it with anyone," Bigelow says. He had finished his course work and was supposed to write a dissertation on scorpions of Arizona. In fact, he had the research done. But he also had financial troubles, a wife who wanted him to move on, and so he took a teaching job, first at Navajo Community College up on the reservation, and then at Yuma's Arizona Western College, where he has taught ever since.
ASU ceased to be scorpion central when Stahnke and Cazier retired; notably, two of their graduate students finished their degrees and went on to become prominent scorpiologists at other universities. Stahnke died in 1990; Cazier is updating a monograph on tiger beetles.
Bigelow's research went into hibernation; last fall, like the scorpion thawed out of the block of ice, he scuttled back to Tempe to clear up unfinished business.
@body:The name "Barry Goldwater Bombing Range" has a decidedly 1960s sound to it. It stands for a desolate stretch of desert outside of Yuma, sandy creosote flats wasting off past the Mexican border 15 miles to the south, that the U.S. Air Force uses for target practice. Bigelow has chosen this stretch for tonight's collecting by default. He wanted to go down to the banks of the Colorado River to look for a new species he's been tracking, but the river is a popular entry point for illegal aliens from Mexico, and he knows he'll be stopped every half-hour by curious INS border patrols.
So he stops his old Japanese pickup truck aside a washboarded road on the bombing range, gets out, clicks on his black light and instantly scans a scorpion right at roadside. It's Smeringerus mesaensis again, the benign little fellow who predominates in the Yuma area.
Bigelow's 11-year-old daughter, Chandra, is ready with the tweezers, and when she catches the little scorpion by the tail, it squirms and arches up toward her hand. Unmoved, she drops it into the plastic bag that her father pulls from a jeans pocket.
The very first time that Bigelow took Chandra collecting, they walked down their block to where the street dead-ended into the desert. Bigelow snapped on his ultraviolet light, and when Chandra saw all the glowing, green critters around her feet, she screamed.
Now she hunts enthusiastically. Between her and her father, they catch 50 scorpions in as many minutes, one every ten feet or so.
For Bigelow, this is slim pickings, and he blames the bright moonlight. "Their lateral eyes can pick up spots of light as dim as starlight," he says. Though the scorpions are nearly invisible to the naked human eye--except under black light--they know instinctively that night predators can see them easily.
All of the specimens turn out to be Smeringerus mesaensis; Bigelow had at least hoped to find a species called Vaejovis confusas, which he's writing about in his dissertation. As its name implies, it's a confusing species, first studied and probably misidentified by Professor Stahnke. Bigelow hopes to make the definitive description.
Current research fashions tend toward DNA studies, ecology, species diversity, microbiological lab studies. What Bigelow's doing--taxonomy--is more in the 19th-century mold; it's the detailed cataloguing of species characteristics.
"It's old-fashioned, but scorpions are old-fashioned," he says, without the faintest hint of being defensive. "They're antiquities; that's what piques my interest. They're 450 million years old, and we still don't know very much about them." Even his language is old-fashioned. "The arachnologists dig on spiders," he says, "not on scorpions." The scorpion is not the kind of big, sexy creature that environmental-trust-funders are going to open their pocketbooks to fund study grants for. Scorpions are not threatened as species. To most of us, they're outright repulsive, even less welcome in our yards than are cockroaches. And so major studies are going to go toward venom analysis, not taxonomy.
But Bigelow's not the lab type. "Being out in the field like this is the best teacher," he says. "You can't get any appreciation for the animal in a lab. You have to see them in their natural habitat."
He tromps back to his truck, lowers the tailgate and sits down to light a cigarette. He exhales smoke into the evening air.
Somewhere up above, in the tangle of stars on this clear, July night, there's a constellation called Scorpio, named by the ancients. The scorpion was already ancient when the astrologer first looked up and imagined a resemblance. When we are all gone, the scorpion will still be stalking these sands.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.
- Teen Girl Shoots Friend at Independence High School in Glendale
Thu., Feb. 18, 7:00pm
Fri., Feb. 19, 7:30pm
Fri., Feb. 19, 7:30pm
Fri., Feb. 19, 7:30pm
- Bernie or Hillary? Here's Which Arizona Leaders Are Endorsing Each Candidate
- Ex-Arizona Lottery Boss Loads Kids in State Vehicle Illegally (Video)