Menu Close

Desert Pests and Snake Bites

This month we will talk about desert pests. A pest can simply be a nuisance or can be dangerous.   Any bite from any of the creatures in this article should be seen by medical personnel for advice, consultation, or treatment.

The Gila Monster:        

The Gila Monster is a lizard. It is the largest lizard north of Mexico in North America. They are normally found in burrows and rocky shelters.  The Gila monster is visually quite distinctive: Their entire bodies except for their bellies are covered with vividly colored scales called osteoderms. Typical colors are yellow and pink and black.  The Gila monster is unusual in appearance not merely for its coloration, but it’s awkward slow lumbering gait, and poor eyesight. Note they do not deliberately prey on humans, except when the human is perceived as a threat.

The bite of the Gila Monster is particularly painful. The Gila Monster sneaks up on its prey and bites quickly.  Often intervention is needed to release the jaw grip.

The toxic venom is rarely fatal to humans. However, it is described as exceedingly painful.
It is best to admire the Gila Monster from afar. In fact, harming or hunting Gila Monsters is against the law. In 1952 the Gila Monster was the first venomous wildlife in North America to be protected by Federal Law.


When bees sting, venom is injected directly at the site of the sting. The amount of venom of a single bee bite can cause pain and swelling and itchiness. The quantity and potency of the venom of a single bite is too low to cause fatalities. The exception to this, is hypersensitivity to bee venom and resultant anaphylaxis which can be fatal. Multiple bee stings can be fatal. Multiple bee stings should be evaluated medically.

Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency.  Call an ambulance for field treatment and transport to hospital.

Following a single bite, removing the stinger promptly is recommended.  Removing the stinger should be done with care to not disturb the venom sac, causing it to empty into the tissue. Methods of removing a stinger involve scraping the skin above the stinger to expose it. Scraping can be accomplished with a blunt edge such as a credit card, fingernail, or butter knife. Try to avoid squeezing or tearing the venom sac. Do not remove the stinger with a tweezer or sharp blade 

Bees can make nests anywhere. A common nest site is a tree trunk or hole at the base of the tree. If you spot a site with bees entering and exiting that is often a sign of a nest. If you unintentionally disturb a nest run away as the colony will perceive that as a threat and may swarm.  Avoid jumping into water to escape bees. Bees have been known to hover for hours waiting for the person to surface.   If you are attacked, use hands and arms to protect your face and neck.

Spiders:  There are two well-known species of spiders that do cause severe pain and suffering from their bites: The Black Widow and Brown Recluse. However even these two species, generally, will not bite unless threatened.

Black Widow Spider:     

The Black Widow Spider is both a feared and perhaps misunderstood spider. Despite their nasty reputation, these spiders are described as timid and shy but not aggressive. The venom is significantly more toxic than that of a rattlesnake. Only the bite of a female black widow spider is harmful to humans. The spider is often found in dark places and in corners, examples being closets and garages. Spiders have been found in clothing, and bites occur when putting clothing on. Most bite victims have a minor degree of pain.  A small percentage (1-2 percent) have life threatening complications. Hospitalization to control pain and muscle spasm, along with supporting any complications is recommended. Black widow spider antivenom is very effective at relieving symptoms and avoiding prolonged hospitalization. Black widow spider bites generally have a good prognosis. Symptoms usually resolve in 1-2 days.

Brown Recluse Spider:     

The brown recluse spider can be found in the south, Midwest and West. The characteristic identifying mark is called a Fiddle Mark and is found on the back. In nature they are found in dark places, such as under rocks or dead trees.  In homes they are found in attics, basements boxes and bedsheets, cupboards and drawers. Their bite can cause either well localized tissue destruction (necrosis) at the site of the bite or systemic venom effects (Body as a whole is affected rather than just the bite site). Local tissue destruction is more common than systemic effects. Like other spiders they bite defensively. Like the black widow, their venom is very poisonousness and the quantity of poison delivered with their bite is small as compared to rattlesnakes. Severe reactions are more common in children and involve damage to red blood cells and platelets, organ damage, seizures and even death. Children with brown recluse bites should be observed in a hospital setting. Death from a brown recluse spider bite is rare.


Scorpions prefer warm dry climates. Not surprisingly most scorpions in the United States live in southwestern states. Although they have similarities to spiders, scorpions deliver their venom by stinging their prey injecting venom through stingers found in their tails. Technically, a scorpion delivers a sting not a bite. There are over 1,500 species of scorpions. Approximately thirty of these species are venomous.

Scorpion stings can cause well localized intense pain and numbness around the bite as

Scorpion stings can cause well localized intense pain and numbness around the bite as

the only complication . However, increased salivation, blurry vision, difficulty breathing, slurred speech, muscle twitching and seizures can also be the result of a scorpion sting.  The latter would require ER evaluation.

Snake in Arizona

Snakes and Snake Bites:     

For the purposes of protecting ourselves and our domestic animals however the actual mechanism of how poison is delivered is not as important as not getting bitten. Equally important to not getting bitten, is what to do if bitten. Neuro toxins in the venom cause flaccid paralysis. Venom can also damage the heart, lungs and kidneys. The size and age of the victim affect toxicity. Children are therefore quite vulnerable.  It is important to note that newly dead snakes can still bite and eject venom. Snakes retain reflexes for a short while after death that allows them to respond to stimulation including biting. In fact, the biting reflex can persist even when the head is cut off.

First Aid Snake Bite
  • The immediate goal is to slow down venom absorption and get to a hospital as quickly as possible as snake bites are life threatening. If medical attention is delivered within the first six hours following the bite, the damage caused by the venom to the body, and fatality rate is much lower
  • Keep the victim calm. Approximately 70% of all snake bites are non-venomous.        Another 50% of all venomous bites are “dry”, meaning the snake did not inject venom at the time of the bite.
  • Immobilize the affected limb.
  • Remove rings, watches, jewelry, restrictive clothing.
  • Track the swelling by marking the edge of the wound farthest from the arm or leg. Note the time of initial mark and continue to mark the progression of swelling and the time. If possible, measure the circumference of the swelling and record serially.
  • Do not allow the victim to exert themselves. Exercise increases venom absorption.
  • Compression of bite area may worsen tissue damage. Avoid compression unless needed to control bleeding from wound.
  • DO NOT use a tourniquet
  • DO NOT attempt to extract the venom
  • DO NOT wash or irrigate or manipulate wound
  • DO NOT irrigate the wound.                                            

A word on these two snakes often confused due to similar coloring

Arizona Coral Snake: Venomous
Arizona Coral Snake: Venomous
Arizona King Snake: Non-Venomous
Arizona King Snake: Non-Venomous

Differentiate these two snakes by the rhyme:

Coral snake “red on yellow” toxic fellow.           King Snake “Red on black friend of Jack”

We hope  that you have learned something new and something that will help you avoid a bite or injury from one of our desert neighbors. However, if you are bitten by any desert creature and are concerned contact your Professional Health Care Provider for medical guidance immediately.