Bug Stories.


After all of the horrible, dense, theoretical verbiage I’ve had to toss at the screen today, I got in the mood for a little storytelling, inspired by an exchange on twitter. Every archaeologist has their own bug stories, so I’ll share a few of mine. I’ve worked in a few places in the world, and each has their own array of flora and fauna. I run a strict no-kill policy in my trenches. Spiders, snakes, lizards, worms, we get it all, and I do my best to carefully move them to another place. I’ve also had goats, puppies, cows, raccoons, cats, and mice in my trenches, but we’ll stay away from the mammals for now. (Also a rather creepy set of barefoot human footprints on a restricted site that did not appear at all outside the trench…yeah.)

I did my first field work in Texas, where there are an uncommon quantity and quality of bugs. There are the generalized menace bugs, such as horseflies, ticks, centipedes, chiggers, and fire ants and these are pretty much a fact of life. Add that to poison oak, poison ivy, heat stroke, and the fact that every single goddamn plant south of Austin is sharp, it can make survey pretty miserable. There’s a plant called crucifixion thorn that doesn’t even have leaves, only thorns…and the horse cripplers and the bull nettles. But again, I’m not here to talk about plants.

I was working with John Lowe (was it the Siren site?) when I got a mean set of chiggers. Chiggers aren’t well known to the rest of the world, but they’re mean little mites that like to burrow through your socks and give you a terribly itchy bite. They burrow into your skin, eat a little bit of you, and then fall back out again. They tend to leave horrible mountains of puss on me…not so pleasant. The next day me and my co-worker Tina stumbled into a seed tick nest, which makes you look like a poppy seed bagel, all covered in tiny little black spots that are biting you. When I got back to my hotel room I picked them off. I stopped counting at 70. Finally, I got bitten by a spider while riding in the site vehicle back to the office, which left an egg-sized welt on my inner wrist.

A few days later, big lumps started forming all along my shins and upper arms. I ignored it until my joints started seizing up and I couldn’t walk anymore.  I went to the doctor and it was one of those things where they started calling in more and more people to check me out. Turns out I got Erythema nodosum, an autoimmune response, in my case, to “excessive envenomation.”

One more story, and I’ll call it a night. I have to get back to the ol’ dissertation. There’s a lot of spiders around, including the pregnant camel spider I have pictured above (it’s actually a bit small for a camel spider), the bright green spiders that come out alongside your trench when it’s over 100F, and the baby tarantulas that are in tunnels they burrow in the ground and flop out wetly into your trench when you accidentally expose them. I was at another site in South Texas, lovely site, basically a riverbed with lovely cherty gravels and some questionable paleoindian artifacts mixed in. I’m afraid that my employer didn’t get their full day of work from me, as I spent at least a solid hour watching a tarantula fight a tarantula hawk. Tarantula hawks are large wasps that like to find tarantulas and paralyze them, drag them back into their nest, and lay their eggs in their still-living bodies. Pretty cool stuff.

This dance lasted a long time, the tarantula waving its front legs around, trying to run away, the gorgeous black and russet wasp diving in again and again. Finally, the wasp got behind it and I could see the tarantula twitching as it was stung with the long stinger. The wasp dragged the tarantula for what seemed like ages. I’d go and sort rocks and then come back and the thing was still dragging the big hairy spider around. Finally it disappeared somewhere, I’m assuming the burrow, and all was peaceful again.

A lot of people will kill bugs first thing when they see them, and I slap mosquitos and fire ants like anyone else. But checking out a preying mantis, or those ridiculous big black beetles as big as your thumb that would turn over on their backs and just helplessly twitch at Catalhoyuk, finding a ridiculous looking caterpillar, being tasted by butterflies…it’s just another reason I love archaeology. Bitey, evil bugs and all.

2 responses to “Bug Stories.

  1. The picture was enough, but dear god, I though Georgia was hell!

  2. Bug story #1. What is that “swish-swish-swish” noise out in the garden (in Cuernavaca, Mexico)? It’s just the leaf-cutter ants cutting their way through one of the trees in the yard. They can strip a big section of tree in one evening. Meanwhile, the ugliest bug I ever saw was walking along the bathroom floor at 4 AM while I’m busy being sick (in Cuernavaca, listening to the swish swish swish). It looked nasty, and I was worried about my young daughters asleep in the next room. I killed it, and smelled vinegar. When I told our local crew the next day, they said that the vinegar-smelling bugs are the most venomous and deadly scorpions around, and that it was a good thing that I managed to kill it. Later, at the Insect Zoo at the Smithsonian (well worth a visit, especially the huge Madagascar cockroaches), I saw some of these things and asked about them. They are whip scorpions, not poisonous at all. IN fact, they are arachnids, not scorpions at all.

    And cheap thrills during lunch on the patio of a 16th century convent where our archaeology lab was set up in Tepoztlan Mexico: leave a few potato chips in the path of the parade of ants across the patio and up the side of the convent. From some distance, all you can see is a bunch of potato chips moving slowly up the wall. Exciting stuff after sorting sherds all morning.

    Now that I work at higher elevation, in Toluca Mexico (ca. 9,000 ft), we have very few bugs compared to Cuernavaca and Tepoztlan. That is generally a good thing, but it’s sad that I can’t think of any bug stories from projects in Toluca.

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