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Mexican Bugs, Bichos, and Furry Crawlies

Black widow spider

Black widow spider

Mexican Bugs, Bichos, and Furry Crawlies

Everybody asks, so here’s the scoop about bugs in Mexico.  The bottom line–it’s pretty doubtful you will see anything more dangerous than mosquitoes and the odd cockroach.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Fourteen months ago we moved into a new house.  We are now the proud owners of a tiny but cute place in the Mexican countryside.  We are surrounded by farmland, and there is an extensive swampy area just downhill from us—at least in rainy season.

Do we have bugs?  Sure.  Are they out of control?  Nah—according to a good friend, the insects are a bigger problem in southern New Jersey.

I recognize that people have varying tolerances for our insect friends.  I minored in entomology in college, so am much more likely to greet a particularly bizarre specimen with “Gee, cool!” than “Oh my God—YUCK!”  So you have to factor that in.  I love bugs.

Bugs and small furry pests in Mexico are called “bichos” (Bee-chos).  If someone looks at you strangely they look at you like a “bicho raro”–an odd bug.

(Academic aside:  Strictly speaking, of all the insects only those of the Order Hemiptera can correctly be called bugs—they are the true bugs, as a matter of fact, which has more to do with their bugginess than their honesty.  Stink Bugs are true bugs.  Flies and wasps and butterflies are insects but not bugs.  Now that you know, we will revert to the incorrect but convenient habit of using “bug” for almost anyone from the large family Arthropod).

We attract a large and varied number of butterflies to our gardens, but in this essay I prefer to speak of the more noxious or dangerous pests you may encounter while traveling or living in Mexico.

Black Widow Spiders—Some months you would think we were farming them for an Adams Family movie.  One day a couple of weeks ago we killed 13 around the house.  The males are skinny little guys, black with a stripe or two of red.  But the females are gorgeous beasts—glistening black, often with various stripes of red, yellow, or orange on the dorsal side of their abdomen and that wonderful hourglass underneath.  They make tough, disorganized webs in window frames, door jams, and general nooks and crannies.  Household sprays kill them dead, and they squish magnificently.

The black widow uses a nerve poison.  If you are bit you start to go numb (according to a teacher friend who put on her blouse and was bit by a spider inside).  The paralysis spreads to your lungs, which as you might imagine is where the trouble comes in.  If you are bit, it is a good idea to go to a clinic in some haste, where they will give you a shot of the antidote.

Ants—Ants back home in New York are industrious creatures who bite only if they are 1-  sufficiently large and 2- mighty vexed.  Not so in Mexico.  Here many ants don’t stop at biting—they can sting as well.  Not too surprising, as ants, bees, and wasps are all closely related.  And even the really tiny ones—so small they look like walking commas, pack a real wallop.  These small ones, known as asquilines, seem to work in unison to storm your foot as you stand in sandals in the garden—they are so tiny you feel nothing—and then (do they release an alarm pheromone?) they all sting at once.  The stings burn like mad for ten minutes, and then itch like the very devil for days and days afterward.

We had problems with columns of ants marching through the house.  We now mop with Ajax that has a special additive against crawling bugs, and it works.

Cockroaches—Speaking of crawling bugs.  There are some exotic members of the family here, but the two most common ones are the same as in New York City—the big, bumbling, red-brown American cockroach and the skinny, lightning fast German cockroach, with two stripes on its thorax.

In all semi-tropical and tropical climes, cockroaches are a challenge.  If anyone in the neighborhood has them, they can get into the drainage pipes and crawl out of your shower and sink drains—or simply walk across the yard and enter under your door.

We were fine in the new house for a year.  We saw 3 or 4 roaches in that time—all the big, American roach, which are easy to kill.

Then a family moved in directly behind us, and must have brought several suitcases of roaches with them.

Within a week we were swimming in roaches.

It took about a month, but we have finally got rid of 99 44/100s of them.  We used 4 different insecticides in rotation, and keep up mopping with Ajax “Against Roaches.” Now we see one or two a week in the house.

Tarantulas—They are here, and you will never see one unless you know where to look and go hunting them at night.  I love tarantulas, and in years of casual looking for them have seen—now let me count them—one.  There are lots in the market, where they are sold as pets.

Chagas Bugs—the disease that killed Charles Darwin was contracted from a true bug—a largish Hemipteran that feeds on sleeping victims (bedbugs are a close relative) and leaves it’s infected droppings on the skin, which are then scratched into the wound by the irritated human.  I’ve seen several of the bugs here in Jalisco, especially when I was teaching biology and my students did insect collections.  Unless you sleep in adobe huts with tile roofs, (see the photo essay on Ahuisculco for a possible habitat for these bugs), you are very unlikely to meet up with one.

Scorpions—Seventy people a year die in our state of Jalisco from scorpion stings.  Most are children or older folks—scorpions rarely kill healthy adults, but they sure make them jump.  We have yet to find a scorpion in our country house, where you would expect them, but they show up occasionally in Tonala and in droves (I’m told by an exterminator) in downtown Guadalajara around the San Juan de Dios market.

Mice and rats—of course.  Keep things clean.  Keep a cat (Coco plays with them).  Here in the country you are going to see them occasionally.

And now, the most dangerous animal on earth, the one that kills more people every year than any other—the Mosquito.  Remember the swamp I mentioned?  We have lots of mosquitoes.  But you can beat them if you know their habits.  Ours fly at dusk—between 8 and 9.  If you are outside at that time, wear long pants and sleeves and a hat.  We keep the doors shut during that hour, and have mosquito netting on the windows.

Jalisco has a dengue problem right now, especially near the coast.  Dengue is a sometimes-fatal disease transmitted by mosquitoes.

OK—have I scared you away from Mexico yet?  Don’t be silly.  I’m just being honest about the pests you may find occasionally if you live here or travel extensively.  But unless you go looking for trouble or have incredibly bad luck, none of the above beasts are really much of a problem.  We sure roll with them (now THAT sounds a little strange).

And if you think our list is scary—where are YOU from?  The Northeast, with Lyme Disease and Equine Encephalitis?  The South, with cottonmouths and alligators?  And do you lose sleep over them?  Nah—you just learn to get along, respect nature, and go about your life.

Dan and Omar

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Etiam pulvinar consectetur dolor sed malesuada. Ut convallis euismod dolor nec pretium. Nunc ut tristique massa.

Nam sodales mi vitae dolor ullamcorper et vulputate enim accumsan. Morbi orci magna, tincidunt vitae molestie nec, molestie at mi. Nulla nulla lorem, suscipit in posuere in, interdum non magna.