This is the third part of what was supposed to be a quick post on the creepy crawlies of the lowveld in South Africa. I need to create an ecosystem for a book I am writing, and in the absence of any genuine creative talent, I’m plagiarising one that I already know. In my first two posts, I covered the “cute and cuddly” (https://23thorns.wordpress.com/2012/07/29/226/) and the “terrifying but harmless” (https://23thorns.wordpress.com/2012/07/29/this-is-the-sec-9/) categories. Now we can move on to the really fun stuff; the tiny little creatures that can hurt or even kill you.
I covered mosquitos in the introduction to part 1. So now let’s move on to the second most dangerous. The bees. Bees the world over have stings, and can be pretty nasty. For those who are allergic, they can be deadly. African bees, however, have had to evolve to deal with two major predators; honey badgers and us. The technique which has proved most effective for the bees in this evolutionary arms race is naked aggression. Much has been made of the invasion of the Americas by “Africanised killer bees”. The bees here are their granddaddies. Everyone here has been stung once or twice by lone bees. Their great party trick is to settle down and drink the water splashed out of swimming pools, which happens to be the place where children run around without shoes.
Better yet, the two things bees love most round here, where it is hot and dry, are moisture and sugar. When I was younger, I went to Europe, and was most taken by the suave sophistication of their al fresco dining setup. Desperately cool people in crushed linen suits and sunglasses lounged around at outdoor tables, casually sipping glasses of wine and taking in the passing show. We do a similar thing here, only here it’s more a case of desperately uncool people in denim shorts frantically trying to keep the local bees out of their cokes. Instead of suave sophistication, everyone looks like they are practising for a synchronised mime show of king kong when he was attacked by those planes at the top of the empire state building. It’s all fun and games until somebody absent-mindedly takes a sip of warm coke and angry bee. Having your throat swell up is no fun at all.
The real tragedies, though, happen because of these.
That’s a swarm of bees on the move. They leave the old hive to find a new home, and on their travels, will settle down to rest on a low hanging branch, gathering in a dripping, swarming ball around the queen. Now imagine you were a twelve year old boy, out with your friends. With a stone in your hand. There is simply no way you will leave this alone. Mess with these, though, and they can kill you. The pheromones released by a stinging bee will mark you for the rest of the hive, and they will follow you to the ends of the earth. The fabled diving-into-water-to-escape trick doesn’t work- they will hover above you till you come up for air. The best thing to do is to run through thick bush, but I defy anyone to think things through logically while being stung by thousands of angry bees. Every year, people are stung to death. But boys, as they say, will always be boys.
As an entirely pointless aside, the forefathers of the Africanised killer bees come from a small farm over the hill from my childhood home. They were sent out to Brazil as part of an experiment to increase honey production. It did not go well. As an even more pointless aside, they nearly killed my father. Not by stinging him, but by causing a prolonged fit of uncontrollable laughter immediately after he had had a heart bypass. You see, the owner of the bee farm in question had a prosthetic leg. It was hollow and made of plastic.
My father, high as a kite on morphine after his op, somehow chanced on the mental image of the one-legged beekeeper filling his hollow leg with bees, and sealing them in with a cork. He couldn’t stop thinking about it, and couldn’t stop laughing. Uncontrollable fits of laughter immediately after open heart surgery are not the sort that people call “the best medicine”. By the time my father’s morphine fuelled hallucination reached the point where the one legged bee keeper was beating his hollow leg with a stick to stir up the bees before whipping out the cork and setting them on his enemies, my father was in real danger of having another heart attack. These bees are so dangerous they can hurt you even when they aren’t there!
Speaking of my father, the next creature on the list is the humble tick.
The main threat from them is tick-bite fever. My wife, who has given natural birth twice without the aid of medication or epidurals (We’re not hippies or anything, she just didn’t want to be a bother to the nurses), had tick-bite fever a couple of years ago, and described the headache that went with it as some of the most exquisite pain she had ever experienced.
There is, however, a more subtle reason to fear the ticks out here. Most of the varieties are fairly large. You will occasionally be horrified to find a grape sized bag of blood hanging off some little used part of your body, but these are easily removed. But then there are the pepper ticks.
Ticks are fascinating little creatures. They will lie dormant at the tips of grass stems of branches until roused by the carbon dioxide in some passing creature’s breath. Then they will come for you. This is fine if you happen to be passing through. By the time they have woken up, you have already moved on. If you happen to be last in a single file line, they might get you, but only one or two of them. There are two groups of people, though, who were designed by God to feed his special little creations. Bird-watchers and my father. My father is a plant-watcher.
Both of these groups are inclined to stop dead in thick grass to observe their chosen subjects. And the pepper ticks move in. in their hundreds. They are tiny, about the size of a pin-head. The first thing they do is move up to a dark, moist part of your body to feed. Yes, I’m afraid there is no other way to say it but that several hundred blood sucking parasites will take up residence in what the Victorians would describe as the cleft of your buttocks. It gets better. You cannot just scratch them off, since that will leave the heads in, which may become infected. Being infested with pepper ticks inevitably involves some unfortunate soul having to spend a happy hour or two picking away at the base of your scrotum with a pair of tweezers.
On to more noble beasts. Let’s start with the spiders. Most spiders are more frightening than dangerous, but there are two in the lowveld worth mentioning; the button spiders and the violin spiders. Button spiders are part of the same family as black widows. They can kill a small child, but very seldom hurt people since they are reclusive and retiring. Just to put things in perspective, though, here is a picture of one eating a snake it has killed.
Far more sinister (should snake-eating spiders not be enough for you) is the violin spider. These spiders evolved to live in cracks in sheltered places like caves. When people moved into their territories, slapped up homes, and started hanging pictures on the walls, they must have thought that their god was smiling on them. Their bite is painless. And causes necrosis. What this means is that, while you are sleeping, one may scuttle out from behind your grandmother’s portrait and start happily exploring your bed. Should you happen to roll onto it in your sleep, it will bite you before limping back to hide behind granny. You will wake up none the wiser, but may be a little disconcerted when, some days later, a small section of your body simply dies and falls off.
For a more in-your-face sort of experience, we can move on to the scorpions. Stop what you are doing and go and fetch a ruler. If you are a proper grown-up, you will have one in your desk in front of you. If you have children, go and retrieve one from the slot in your DVD player. Have a look at how long 210mm is. That is the size of the largest of the lowveld scorpions. Here she is (the females are bigger than the males).
Don’t worry though, they only live in rocky places, and besides, there is a rule of thumb that says that, when dealing with scorpions, the larger the claws and the thinner the tail, the less poisonous they are. You will note that the lady above has huge claws and a thin tail. She can still hurt like hell though. Far more worrying is this one.
It measures a mere 150mm. The size of a small mouse. On the down-side, it can be found everywhere, and is described in the charming language of guide books as “medically important”. The one you are most likely to have to contend with, though is this one.
This guy is only 60mm long, but when you first go down to the bush, you will be told to shake out your shoes before putting them on, and carefully check your towels before drying yourself. That’s because this guy likes to hide in moist, dark places. These particular scorpions have given me great joy. Because of mothers and shoes. Growing up, outside of school and court, I hardly ever wore shoes. This led to my mother spending a great deal of time in the bush telling me to go and put shoes on. I wouldn’t. We struck a deal.
I didn’t have to wear shoes if I never complained if I hurt my feet. This was no idle bargain- we used to braai (barbeque) on a flat concrete circle on the ground. Periodically, red hot coals would roll off, and if I stood on one, I had to suffer in silence. I could do a hell of a dance, though. My mother’s constant threat was that one day I would stand on a scorpion. And then I would be sorry. I’ve never been stung. She has been stung three or four times. This led to levels of smugness in a 12 year old me that must have registered on the US civil defence network. She once even went so far as to step out of the shower and wrap a nice fluffy towel, scorpion and all, around her lower half. I said nothing. But I said it very eloquently indeed!
Next are the centipedes. Their cousins, the millipedes, somehow manage to be cute. Centipedes aren’t cute. They look like some fanciful CGI work on a bad sci-fi movie. They get pretty big, too. And they are poisonous. You tend to only see them when they flee the logs they had been living in right up to the moment you threw them on the fire, but to have one of these winding its way toward you at high speed with their blood already up is deeply disconcerting.
The last of the bad guys I’ll look at is the acid beetle. They are quite large, and have two bright yellow marks on their backs. This is nature’s way of saying “back the hell off!”
Should you choose to ignore this warning, they will spray you with formic acid, lovingly harvested from the ants they eat. Every now and then you will meet someone with a large, patchy, and permanent red scar on their lower legs. These people are the ones who choose not to listen to natures warnings. Or are colour-blind.
There are lots of other many legged horrors out in the bush. Wasps, poisonous caterpillars, water scorpions (swimming always held an element of risk) and the like. They all just serve to make time spent down there just a little more interesting. There are a few more creepy crawlies that are simply interesting. I’ll cover them next time and then, I swear, I will leave the bush alone for a while. I might try a post or two about concrete, or synchronised swimming. But I do hope these posts have encouraged at least some of you to come and spend some time out in the bush. Just don’t touch anything, or try to sleep. You never know what may be lurking in the dark.