Creatures Walk Among Us
Alabama boasts an abundance of creeping, crawling, flying things that inspire fearsometimes rightly so.
July 07, 2011
When I was a kid, during one of our family's many Gulf Coast vacation trips we heard reports that year of shark sightings along the very beach where we were staying. Those rumors never put a dent in the fun my brother and I had while riding the waves or when searching for creatures in the waist-deep surf. However, after my Dad discovered a scorpion in the carport of the beach house (he actually stepped on it!), any and all subsequent barefoot adventures were marred by a vague aura of caution and dread. Just a few years later during a visit to my grandparents' home in rural Double Springs, one of my dad's sisters commented on the unusually high volume of noise that cicadas and katydids were making after a spectacular thunderstorm had ended. My grandfather replied, "It's the bugs you can't hear that you need to worry about."
Those two incidents form the basis of my personal philosophy concerning the six, eight, or multi-legged creatures that walk among us in Alabama: who needs them? To assist that rare individual who has not already adopted a similar credo, the following is a non-comprehensive survey of some of Alabama's nastiest native crawling things.
Velvet Ant (Dasymutilla occidentalis)
|Velvet Ant (Dasymutilla occidentalis) (click for larger version)|
All you really need to know about this beautiful but way-too-large ant, which is actually a wingless wasp, is that long ago some good country people nicknamed this creature "the cow killer" because of its powerful sting. In Alabama's areas of sandy soil (and that's a lot of territory), one finds this bright red or orange, furry-looking creature busying herself with a dastardly purpose. The solitary velvet ant enters the ground nests of respectable wasps and bees that actually have wings, and then deposits eggs from which her young emerge to feed on the larvae of the "host" bees or wasps. Step on a velvet ant while wearing shoes and you will hear an extremely odd squeaking, buzzing sound that hints of electronic origins. If you aren't wearing shoes, that peculiar sound won't really be an issue.
Black Widow (Latrodectus mactans)
|Black Widow (Latrodectus mactans) (click for larger version)|
Even kindergarteners are taught to beware the shiny black spider with the spindly legs and red hourglass pattern on its abdomen. Unfortunately, that lesson often comes during the same afternoon in which the class reads and/or sings "The Itsy Bitsy Spider." What might therefore be some possible confusion emerges as total misconception in our high school years, because the film we watch in biology class depicts merely a tiny spider slowly and steadfastly preparing her web in a secluded spot. In short, we are seldom taught the three most important facts about the black widow: she is larger than you think; she is fast; she is aggressive. So the next time you move those stacked stones around the flower beds, wear gloves. A neurotoxin can spoil even the most fun-filled summer afternoon.
Cicada Killer (Sphecius speciosus)
|Cicada Killer (Sphecius speciosus) (click for larger version)|
The good news is that this magnificent, gorgeous wasp is extremely non-aggressive. It is also solitary, so there are no swarms to worry about, as such. The bad news is that the creature grows to just over two inches in length and is a skilled flyer with superb vision. The cicada killer does strike a handsome figure with its bold black-and-yellow striped thorax, golden eyes, and orange legs, but the predatory habit by which it earned its common name is the stuff of nightmares. You may spot one or two of these giant wasps hovering over a small hole in your lawn, into which the nest owner will at some point drag a full grown cicada as food for the wasp's young. It's an unnerving sight to behold, but constitutes no real nuisance—unless 30 or 40 other cicada killers establish nests nearby.
Eastern Lubber Grasshopper (Romalea guttata), aka Devil's Horse, aka Graveyard Grasshopper
|Eastern Lubber Grasshopper (Romalea guttata)|
Basically a huge, jet-black grasshopper with bright red or yellow racing stripes, the Devil's Horse and his thousands of cousins often invade property in rural and semi-rural Alabama like a gang of bikers. Getting the pests to leave is a real magic trick—and you will definitely want them to leave, because once an arthropod gets this big, it lends the impression that it is watching us. Imagine Jiminy Cricket as a scowling backwoods undertaker and you get some idea as to why the Devil's Horse is sometimes called the "graveyard grasshopper."
Adults can reach three-plus inches in length, so a swarm of these grasshoppers will not enhance a front porch, deck, garden, or driveway. Driving over dozens of them produces a momentarily satisfying crunching sound, the joy of which is mitigated by an unsightly and pungent "arthropod slick." Sweeping them off the porch will just antagonize these guys, at which point they begin hissing while secreting a foul tobacco-like substance from their thorax as a defense mechanism (that explains why birds and other predators won't resolve the problem for you.) Folks on Sand Mountain say that, because the Devil sent the giant grasshoppers to Alabama in the first place, the Devil is the only one who can get rid of them. How that might be arranged is anyone's guess.
European or Giant Hornet (Vespa crabro) and Bald-faced Hornet (Dolichovespula maculata)
Most people have enough sense to remain ever wary of wasps, bees, and hornets. Therefore it is mildly annoying that so many entomologists and National Geographic types function as apologists for creatures that sting. We are urged to understand the hornet's vital role in an ecosystem, and that—in the grander scheme—these insects do not represent a great danger. This line from a Wikipedia entry about the European Hornet is exemplary: "While not aggressive when encountered far from the nest, multiple workers will vigorously defend the nest if provoked."
We are apparently supposed to believe that a hornet's nest constitutes a peaceful village with no malevolent behaviors unless approached or provoked by other warring nations. Considering that the experts have attached the adjective "giant" to the noun "hornet," surely the rational response to those with a kindler, gentler view of nature's most vicious creatures is straightforward: Define "provoke." After all, if the big devils build their nest in a rotting tree in your back yard, you are never far from the nest that these hornets will "vigorously defend."
|Bald-faced Hornet (Dolichovespula maculata) (click for larger version)|
Nonetheless, in this context we can clearly take to heart the wholly non-apologetic entry for the bald-faced hornet, to wit: " . . .will aggressively attack with little provocation." Experience verifies that claim. Perhaps because he is smaller, or because his desultory, black-and-white markings are no match for his larger cousin's brilliant orange/yellow pattern, the bald-faced hornet has something to prove.
That explains why provocation may consist of simply entering his daily flight path, which happens to be a long and pre-designated route not visible to humans. Approaching the tree from which a nest hangs will also bring the wrath of numerous "defenders," while running away from same will further infuriate your basic hornet. They can deliver multiple stings (unlike bees), and a lengthy pursuit of victims apparently doesn't take them away from more important duties. There are hundreds of other workers back at the nest who can masticate moist wood, make paper, and construct wafer-thin catacombs, so bear in mind that the particular dozen or so hornets attacking you for minding your own business have their calendar cleared for that afternoon.
Giant Water Bug (Lethocerus americanus) aka Toe Biter
|Giant Water Bug (Lethocerus americanus) (click for larger version)|
This hateful predator makes its home among dead vegetation in freshwater ponds, lakes, and streams. The aquatic creature must surface to breathe oxygen, and if this leads to contact with another creature (read: human), the bug will play dead by lying on its back and, according to one insect guide, "emit a liquid substance from its anus." Encounters under water may involve an extremely painful bite, by which the water bug may or may not inject a mildly corrosive substance into muscle tissue. The whole idea certainly adds color to your next water-skiing adventure.
Dobson Fly (Corydalus cornutus)
|Dobson Fly (Corydalus cornutus) (click for larger version)|
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was a genuinely bad motion picture, and not just because Ricardo Montalban appeared shirtless with shoulder-length hair. But that science fiction film did leave behind one indelible image. A three-inch long, hissing, pincer-equipped creature that looked like a cross between a rhinoceros and a centipede was allowed to crawl into the ear of an Enterprise officer. What transpired deep within the ear canal you can well guess.
That all sounds like a matter for distant or imaginary galaxies, but oddly enough a similar creature actually dwells in the creek beds and along the banks of Alabama's waterways. Behold the Dobson fly's larvae, also known as a hellgrammite. Although the only harm this prehistoric-looking bug can cause is a vicious assault with those pincers, the hellgrammite's willingness to take on all challengers means that the pincers will indeed come into play, should you lift a rock from a creek bed and get too close to the mud. He can't poison opponents with venom, but as he rears back prepared for attack, covered in gray-green slime and writhing back and forth with his many legs, the hellgrammite can instill a repugnance and horror that will stay with you for many sleepless nights. &
For horrifying footage of these and myriad other insects, arachnids, et cetera, search for any of their common names on YouTube, and let the chills ensue.