Scorpions: Are They Dangerous?

It is perhaps unfortunate that so much of our "understanding" of the magic world of insects comes from how they are portrayed in movies and television programs. We must keep in mind that these media are purely for entertainment value, and are not likely to be particularly scientifically accurate. One of those fascinating arthropods that I believe has gotten a terribly bad rap is the scorpion, and the result of the portrayal of this arachnid in movies is that most people are quite afraid of them, believing them all to be extremely deadly.

I remember a James Bond episode one time, where a scorpion was dropped down the shirt of some poor, trusting fool, and he died within seconds of the sting. In "Honey I Shrunk the Kids" the scorpion played the part of a villain bent on violence, and in any other Hollywood scene that comes to mind the scorpions are always seen as deadly and vengeful.

Can scorpions sting? Certainly, they have a very well developed "stinger" at the tip of their tail, and a well-stocked venom sac right nearby. Are they really dangerous? Perhaps, as some species do have venom that is capable of killing humans, and in fact many people are killed each year around the world by scorpion stings. However, this number is extraordinarily low compared with hundreds of other risks we take calmly, such as driving to the grocery store. So, let's get a little better understanding of scorpions.

First, there are several different kinds, and these are:

  • True Scorpions - these are the ones we typically see, with the stinging tail and big claws.
  • Wind Scorpions - properly called "solpugids" these aggressive hunters cannot sting, and despite their impressive jaws they reportedly cannot even bite people.
  • Whip-tail Scorpions - also called "vinegarones" in the American southwest, these big-jawed guys also cannot sting, although some can spray out an irritating fluid that might sting the eyes of a predator attempting to eat them.
  • False Scorpions - these are tiny little critters that cannot sting, bite, pinch, or in any other way harm an animal or person. They feed on even smaller critters they find in nature, such as springtails or mites.

It is the True Scorpions we will spend some time learning about in this BugInfo article. Like all of their cousins mentioned above, the True Scorpions are carnivores - predators that hunt down and feed on other animals, usually in the form of insects such as crickets, moths, or caterpillars. They are almost all active at night, searching for their prey by the detection of the warmth given off by the other animal. Once food is found they grab it with their claws, sting it to immobilize it, and then consume it with their chewing mouths. In fact, the claws that are sticking out in the front of the scorpion, and which we tend to think of as legs, are actually modified parts of their mouths. Most arthropods have mouthparts referred to as palps, and these are modified for various uses depending on the lifestyle of that bug. In scorpions the palps have grown to opposable claws used for grabbing and holding.

Scorpions are dedicated Mothers...for awhile.

Female scorpions are models of motherhood, giving birth to living babies, perhaps several dozen of them. As they emerge to the outside world the new babies climb up on top of Mom, and gather there as a group. They are carried around by their mother for the first week or two, perhaps feeding on a few scraps they can glean from her feeding, until they are strong enough to venture off and survive on their own. It can be a strange sight for those not expecting this relationship, to see a scorpion walking along with a mass of little scorpions on its back. This protection simply gives a better assurance of the survival of the offspring during their first, vulnerable stage.

This mothering instinct may wear off though, for as soon as the newborns have shed their outer skin the first time they are off on their own, and at this point, given a scarcity of other foods, the females have been known to eat their own offspring. Life is tough in the real world, but survival of a species by whatever means necessary is important.

How Dangerous Are They?

In the United States there are many species of scorpions, ranging from the small variety found commonly in the Central Valley of California, to very large desert species in the Southwest deserts. While they all have the ability to sting there is only a small group that is considered dangerous. Now, we do need to modify this claim by pointing out that many people can have a sensitivity to insect or other arthropod venoms. Just as some people have terrible reactions to a mosquito bite and others have almost none, or some people may be in a life threatening situations from a single bee sting, the reaction to a scorpion sting will also vary. If you are stung by a scorpion it probably would be a good idea to consult quickly with a doctor, to ensure you are not one of those whose immune system goes wild.

In all of the United States there are only about 50 species of scorpions, and out of all these different kinds there is a single species that is felt to be dangerous to humans. This is a kind called the Sculptured Bark Scorpion, and it is found commonly in Arizona south throughout Mexico, as well as in some adjacent areas of southern California, New Mexico and Texas. The scientific name for this scorpion is Centruroides exilicauda, but it previously was called C. sculpturatus or C. gertschi, and thus at times there were thought to be several related species. Be glad you are not in Mexico however, for in that beautiful country there are at least 135 different species of scorpions, and eight of them in the genus Centruroides are felt to be dangerous to people.

The venom of scorpions can affect our nervous system, resulting in severe pain at the point of the sting, heart effects and numbing of the skin tissues around the sting area. It can cause death, usually be causing respiratory failure, and this is a much bigger hazard to children than to adults, or to adults who already have heart or lung problems. In Mexico in the 1940's and 1950's more than 20,000 people are believed to have been killed by the bark scorpions, and while this number is dramatically reduced due to the availability of anti-venom for the sting there still are annual deaths in Mexico from scorpion stings. Around two people per year were killed in Arizona up to 1965, but no more deaths since then due to the anti-venom and better access to medical facilities. Once administered anti-venom the victim is generally okay within only a couple of hours or less.

Where can scorpions be found?

Scorpions are found pretty much throughout the United States, but particularly in the warmer southern states, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Scorpions are, of course, found throughout the world as well, and there are many other species in areas such as Africa, Asia, and the Middle East that also can be dangerous to humans. There is one species found in Hawaii, called the Lesser Brown Scorpion, a species found in many other parts of the world and introduced to Hawaii. It is not dangerous, as its sting is similar to that of a bee in intensity, usually subsiding by the next day.

Scorpions become rare in the northern latitudes of the U.S., but may still be found into southern Canada. They can live for many years and survive for several months without feeding. The largest kind in the United States may be from Arizona, and is called the Giant Desert Hairy Scorpion, but it is puny compared with some of those from tropical regions of Africa or Asia. It can easily reach 5 inches in length, and is a hairy, big-bodied kind in a group of several species of "giant hairy scorpions".

The Sculptured Bark Scorpion is a medium sized scorpion, being just under three inches long from head to tip of tail when full grown. It is a relatively slender scorpion and it is a yellowish color. One distinctive feature that only this species has is a small "blunt thorn" right at the base of the stinger. Throughout the mountains of California you may commonly encounter large, fat, brown scorpions that hide under old logs or loose bark of stumps, and while they are fearful looking they truly would be no more dangerous to the normal person than would the sting of a yellow jacket or honeybee.

What are some steps to take to prevent scorpion problems?

Since scorpions are active at night they must, then, hide in the daytime, and this is the reason so many people get stung. Scorpions may seek their hiding place in clothing, hats, shoes, or other items left on the ground, such as baseball gloves. When these are put on hands or feet or wherever they belong, the scorpion stings in retaliation for what it perceives as a threat to its life. In one incident in Arizona a child put on his baseball cap in which a bark scorpion was hiding, and was stung behind the ear. Within a half hour he was in the hospital in violent convulsions, but by the next day, after receiving appropriate treatment, he went home healthy but tired.

In nature the hiding places are under any objects on the ground under which the scorpion can find its way, such as rocks or logs. If there is human clutter around the list can expand to boards, old mattresses, tires, yard waste piles, etc. This is step one in preventing scorpion presence close to your home - clean up all those places the scorpions can hide if there is no reason for the objects to be on the ground in your yard. A second important step, of course, would be to carefully inspect any clothing you are about to put on if it has spent the night in a location where a scorpion could have crawled into it. If you are living in an area of the country where the Bark Scorpion is present this becomes even more important, and your children should be taught very early on what to look for both to identify the scorpion as well as to keeping safe from it.

Scorpions can climb fairly well too, and may squeeze into a home through narrow cracks around the outside, climbing even into the attic area. If you are, again, in an area highly susceptible to scorpions then you should not walk barefoot in the house at night, and you might consider hiring a licensed professional pest control company to inspect and treat your property. Should you feel something crawling on you avoid the reaction of smashing or slapping at it. Instead you should hit the spot with a "brushing" motion as though you are quickly wiping something off.

If you are stung it has been suggested that you might apply an ice-pack to the sting site, as this may help reduce swelling. Otherwise, unless you live where the Bark Scorpion is present, you should be no more fearful of the sting of the scorpion than you are of a bee sting. Since a scorpion sting is immediately painful you will generally know that you have been stung, and the perpetrator will be right there with you, unlike some spider bites that may be completely painless at the time of the bite. However, if the victim is a child or an older adult the best precaution would be to take them to a doctor immediately.

So, in conclusion, scorpions are just one more of Nature's wonderful animals, and ones that are far more beneficial to us than they are harmful. While we never enjoy being stung by an animal it is done by scorpions only in self defense, and compared with all the other ways we manage to injure ourselves daily the odds of being stung by a scorpion are pretty low.