An uptick in scorpion activity is putting some extra sting in the already controversial construction of the South Mountain Freeway for some nearby homeowners.
Ahwatukee residents near Pecos Road and 27th Avenue are reporting far more scorpions on their property—and even in their homes—after the Arizona Department of Transportation created a temporary nursery a stone’s throw away from their homes.
The nursery is housing thousands of cactuses, bushes and other desert flora that had to be removed from the freeway right of way. Once it is built, they will be transplanted along its path.
Two residents, Jeff Menard and Joe Rao, said their dogs, a French Bulldog and a Golden Retriever, have been stung by scorpions in recent weeks. A third resident, Dietmar Hanke, reported seeing more scorpions in his backyard as well.
Menard, a real estate agent, acknowledges he is sensitive about scorpions. He said he has been bitten twice by the pests at his mother-in-law’s home in another Ahwatukee subdivision. He said he was physically ill for two days after one scorpion incident.
“It was 24 hours of misery you can’t imagine,’’ Menard said.
But his highest priority is protecting his 2 ½-year-old daughter from getting stung.
Menard said he understands that ADOT has a big job to do in building the freeway, but he wonders why the agency located a large nursery so close to a neighborhood that has already been heavily impacted.
“Do what you need to do to build the freeway, but don’t treat my quiet enjoyment of my property as a joke,’’ Menard said. “ADOT is going to do whatever ADOT wants to do.’’
But Dustin Krugel, an ADOT spokesman, said the team preparing to build the freeway does not believe there is any connection between the nursery and reports of additional scorpion sittings by homeowners.
“I had a media inquiry about this in the summer, before we even started the nursery,’’ Krugel said.
He said the nursery must be located on land in the right of way that is owned by ADOT, and at a site close to where the trees and cactuses likely will be replanted.
Eventually, the land being used for the nursery will become a retention basin, Krugel said. The salvaged desert plants will be used to create a natural-looking environment near the freeway, possibly incorporating some plants now stored at the nursery.
“According to our project team, the temporary nursery is unlikely to increase the number of scorpions in the surrounding area because no freeway work in that area, including establishing the nursery, has significantly disturbed the ground,’’ Krugel said. “Most of the plants in the nursery are in boxes set on the ground, and those plants aren’t types known to attract scorpions.”
Moreover, Krugel said the freeway is not the only construction work going on in the area. He said that when crews start building the freeway early next year, ADOT and the developer will closely monitor whether there is an increase in pests.
Menard, a native of New England, set off an alarm on the Facebook page manned by freeway opponent Protect Arizona’s Resources and Children when he reported seeing eight scorpions on his property in two days.
Menard reported seeing about ten scorpions inside his house at various times in the past few weeks. He goes scorpion hunting about three or four times a night and kills scorpions regularly, even using a chisel to nail one hiding in a crevice.
“Since they started moving the dirt, I have seen an uptick,’’ Menard said. “I walk around with a black light. I don’t play around.’’
Rao said he could hear his dog, Vinny, yelping after he was stung. It cost Rao some anxiety and a substantial veterinary bill.
“They are the ones that started the whole problem here. At this point, they should be exterminating once a week,’’ Rao said of ADOT. “I don’t want anyone in my family stung.’’
Dawn Gouge, an entomologist with the University of Arizona’s extension service in Maricopa, said the scorpion uptick is predictable. She said that any time desert ground is disturbed, it is likely that bark scorpions will look for a new home.
Gouge said scorpions are a natural part of the desert environment and are generally not a serious problem when they stay outside in yards.
It also is common for scorpions to take refuge from the intense Arizona heat in the crevices of stucco walls or in the insulation behind them—a favorite hiding spot.
But it’s a whole different scenario when scorpions get inside houses and sting humans, she added.
Most adults will recover after feeling terrible for a day or two, but children should receive immediate medical treatment, according to the Mayo Clinic’s web site.
Gouge urged residents to seal their houses, especially by installing weather-stripping to eliminate any open space below a door. She said fogging an area with pesticides is a waste of time and money, unless the spray happens to deliver a direct hit to a scorpion.
Gouge, a professor and specialist in urban entomology, said what’s happening to Menard and Rao isn’t surprising. She said she has heard similar reports of scorpion sightings related to highway construction.
“Anytime you have lots of movement and disturbance, you will see the scorpions moving around,’’ Gouge said.
Gouge said the correct way to approach the problem is to focus on sealing houses to reduce the odds of getting stung by a scorpion.
“There is no chemical spray that would prevent the scorpions from moving around,’’ Gouge said. “It’s not that effective and there are cracks and crevices.’’
“Pest-proofing to keep them outside is by far the best way to manage scorpions,’’ she said, with proper weather-stripping and tight door sweeps to eliminate any gap between the bottom of the door and the ground. “Nine out of 10 times, they will come in the same way we do.’’
Dean Andrews, an Ahwatukee exterminator who bills himself on his web site as The Scorpion Equalizer, said he does not believe that Ahwatukee as a general rule has any worse of a scorpion problem than anywhere else in Arizona.
He said anyone who lives in Arizona is smart to educate themselves about scorpions, just as it’s smart to educate yourself about hurricanes if you live in Florida.
“I would not be sitting there blaming ADOT,’’ Andrews said of the homeowners. “If they are not doing something proactively, they are going to be victims of scorpions.’’
Andrews agrees with Gouge about the limitations of pesticides and the value of sealing homes. But he said sealing homes can be expensive. His specialty is to hunt down and kill scorpions, making it less likely they will end up inside a house.
He offered to do a free evaluation of Menard’s home and said anyone with scorpion questions can email him at thescorpionequalizer.com.
ADOT said in a press release that more than 1,000 trees, cactuses and other plants will be stored in the nursery until they are relocated along the new freeway’s path when it opens in late 2019. An ADOT survey in September identified more than 1,000 trees, cactuses and native plants along Pecos Road for salvage.
The desert plants include Ironwood and Mesquite trees, along with Ocotillo and Barrel cactuses.
“ADOT takes great pride in maintaining the highway scenery by preserving some of these long-standing plants that are part of Arizona’s history,’’ said LeRoy Brady, ADOT’s chief landscape architect. “An added benefit is that communities seem to support this work.’’
Krugel said ADOT establishes a nursery on every highway project to save native trees and cactuses, a practice it first started in the 1980s.
“They have really refined it over the years. They have learned a lot,’’ Krugel said. “We’ve become very successful at it.’’