Nuisance Bugs of Laikipia
(by Truman Young)
This is a very personal guide to various arthropods lurking in Laikipia. Read it at your own risk. Believe it if you have nothing better to go on.
- Mosquitoes have to be tops on any list, because of the risk of malaria and encephalitis. For years, it was thought that Laikipia was too high in elevation for malaria, but recently there has been some doubt about this. I try to be under a net by 9 pm in any case. The malarial prophylaxes are very powerful, and probably should be avoided by long-term residents (those staying more than a few weeks). Even non-malarial mosquitoes are a nuisance, though (especially to the psyches of people from malarial areas). There is no reason that non-swamp areas in Laikipia should have more than the occasional mosquito, as long as care is taken to avoid allowing even small areas of standing water. Certainly when you are away from Laikipia, use bug spray, take prophylaxis (plan ahead), and be under a net in good time. By the way, mosquitoes (and ticks) seem to prefer some people more than others, and there are lots of theories about this. Survey your friends, and come up with your own theory.
- Ticks are disgusting, can itch like crazy, may cause allergic reactions, and carry tick typhus. Unfortunately, there is no way to completely avoid them if you spend time in the bush. However, they need not ruin your life.
First, some natural history. There are several species of Laikipia ticks (beyond the specialized ones you needn't worry about). All have three stages; all look basically the same, except for size and color. The adults are very visible (2-3mm across), and are perhaps the least common overall, but the most persistent seasonally (i.e., they may be the main ones around in the dry season). Nymphs are only 1mm or so across, and you need to take a better look to find them, but they are still pretty visible. Lastly, the "larval" stages (pepper ticks) are tiny (the size of ground pepper), and can be outrageously abundant at certain times of years (a few weeks after rains start?). Some people call these "chiggers", but true chiggers ar a different critter. These are often encountered as "nests" of up to a hundred or more (from a single egg cluster?), that attach en masse to your clothing. This appears as a dime-sized blot that slowly diffuses into scores of individual ticks, each looking for a blood meal. These are the guys that can cause massive itching when lots of them bite an area (such as the top of the sock). Of course any bite can itch badly if you are sensitive. The good news is that pepper ticks do not carry disease (because you are their first meal).
The other two stages can carry disease. Cattle are dipped because some of these diseases are really nasty for cattle. Luckily, these diseases do not affect humans. However, Laikipia ticks do apparently carry tick typhus. Tick typhus has flu-like symptoms, and is easily cured by standard antibiotics. However, your doctor back home needs to know this is a possibility. That is a part of a more general rule: For the first year or two you are back home make sure any doctor you see knows where you have been, and the kinds of diseases you can get there.
Preventing ticks totally is probably impossible, but you can make their bites rare. They say that it takes that a few hours for a tick to find a good spot and burrow in, but I am sure the pepper ticks are faster. In any case, I do find that merely stripping and showering right after being in the field greatly reduces tick bites all by itself. Hang your field clothes outside (in a hot sun is best), or put them straight in the laundry. A drying oven would also do the trick. Putting on bug spray before you go out also helps. Once ticks are on you, I find that a wide strip of adhesive tape is very effective at mopping them up, especially the pepper ticks. Wearing light clothing makes them easier to see. There are two strategies for making it hard for ticks to get on in the first place. Rubber gum boots are very slippery and discourage ticks. So are clean-shaven legs, but only if you are wearing shorts and sockless sandals.
- African Killer Bees (or as they are known here, bees) are usually well behaved, but will come after you if they think you are a threat. Sometimes at the beginning of the rains, swarms will pass close overhead, which is thrilling but not dangerous. I suspect most stings come from stepping on them in your room. At the swarming stage they are looking for a home, and if your building has a suitable hole, you are in for a real treat. It is when they (nearly) die in your house that you step on them. There are also wasps around, but just ignore them.
- Hairy caterpillars are the larvae of several species of tiger moths. They all look softly hairy, like a cashmere sweater. Unfortunately, many of these hairs are sharp, brittle, and irritant. Even a casual touch (I am sure the caterpillar would disagree) can result in dozens of hairs penetrating the skin. Not actually dangerous, but I have seen a bad reaction to them. When they are about, check your bedding, towels, clothes and shoes before use.
In some years, the all-black ones invade homes. The year 2001 will be remembered in our Segera house as the year of the hairy caterpillars. [Mpala was largely exempt, perhaps because there are no gardens around the buildings.] In the bush, one finds a pretty black and orange striped species, or one that is all black except the orange head. But the one that invades homes is entirely black. I think they are attracted to irrigated gardens. On one memorable evening, I removed 40 of these little devils from our house. A few days later, I awoke to find one crawling on my pillow, inches from my face. Over a six-week period, I had a dozen "hits" and literally hundreds of hairs implanted. The ones we couldn't remove just worked their way into our flesh, and disappeared, often leaving a mean itch. However, one did fester and cause my finger to swell up considerably. I shook three hairy caterpillars out of my son's shoe this morning.
A nasty story: Keith Lindsay, a friend of ours, was doing his doctoral work in Amboseli back in the early 1980s. One evening while he was sleeping, one if these caterpillars dropped on his eyelid. His friends spent a long time gently tweezing out as many of the hairs as they could find, but the hairs are very brittle and many had broken off at skin level. His eyelid itched a bit, but he seemed OK. A few days later, he began to feel a different kind of itching in his eye. It felt like something was scratching his eyeball. The remaining hairs had worked their way down through the eyelid, and were now coming out the inner side! So now the job was to periodically peel the eyelid back, and tweeze these hairs out as they appeared. This is a true story.
- Scorpions are fairly rare, but pack a mean whallop. I don't think they will kill you, barring an allergic reaction. When in doubt, shake out your boots in the morning before putting them on, and check your bedding before lying down. Sleeping on the ground in dry country is just an invitation to a life experience.
- Nairobi Eye is the name for a staphylinid beetle that is thin, about a centimeter long, and colored black-red-black. When annoyed (i.e., gently brushed) they emit a burning acid that can blister. This often happens while you are sleeping, and you wake up with a mysterious linear "burn" on your face. Milk or other buffers can help. They are more common in wetter places, but during wet years, have shown up at Mpala.
- Safari ants (Siafu) are the army ants of East Africa. They are hardly noticeable unless one unwittingly stands in one of their trails. They will not eat you alive in your bed, but they can do a number on a newborn. They have a nasty bite. They are also more common in wetter places. At Mpala they seem to be restricted to near the river, but the abundance of their reproductives (the Sausage Flies) suggests that they are common enough. Some people are bothered by the latter, which are such clumsy fliers that they blunder into your head. The big black Megaponera ants ("Matabele") that raid termite mounds around the Centre are not army ants, and not a threat.
- Cockroaches and flour weevils are restricted to the kitchen (if you are lucky), where they can be really disgusting. But you know that. If you are not a cook, just pretend that they are not around at all, and you will do fine. [This was written before the major assault drove us out of the dining hall. All bets are off.]
- Acacia ants can both bite (Crematogaster) and sting (Tetraponera penzigi). They are mostly a problem if you rip open their homes, tear off their shoots, try to collect them, force them into battle, or otherwise harass them-- but who would be crazy enough to do that? For the rest of you, it is a matter of inadvertently brushing up against a Whistling Thorn. The Crematogaster's bite is just painful enough to be a mere nuisance. However, a Tetraponera will dig in painlessly with its mandibles, then reach up with its gaster to deposit a nasty chemical in the wound. It can itch for days.
- Spiders are everywhere. There is a "grey widow" here, but I have not heard of a bite. As for the others, usually the worst you will get is an ichy bite or two from some poor creature you roll onto in bed. However, I have seen a very swollen lip on a guy who was bitten while siphoning petrol.
- Solifugids are not spiders. In fact, I do not know what they are, but they scare the dickens out of me.
- Fleas are only a problem in places with flea-ridden pets. Been there, done that.
- Mango maggots are the botflies of Africa. They have a really disgusting relationship with humans, but since I do not think they are in Laikipia, I won't go into it.
- Reduvid beetles have been accused (perhaps unfairly) of transmitting Darwin's mysterious ailment. The ones in Kenya are 2-3cm long, and have snouts like a weevil's that they can manipulate around to get you a truly nasty whack. One of the strongest people I know was literally floored by one. I have yet to see or hear of one in Laikipia, but I'll bet they are here.