Getting to Know the Beasties
In Part I of Creepy Crawlers in Costa Rica I gave you tips for dealing with the critters that crawl, fly, and slither. I want to provide a little more detailed information here about the various bugs and a few of the creatures that I think you need to know about. This long of a post will not be typical of my posts, but this topic didn’t lend itself to “in a nutshell” treatment. I am planning a post on humorous creepy crawler encounters for later in the year.
I have provided the singular form of the Spanish names in parentheses, and links to a few pertinent sites at the very end.
Ants (hormiga) The number one most abundant and common pests in Costa Rica range in size from “almost invisible” to “carry away a small child.” There are over 20,000 species of ants, and most of them are represented in Costa Rica. Ants are an unavoidable part of living here.
The smaller ones will invade your kitchen and bathroom at every possible opportunity, so constant vigilance is key. You can keep them at bay, but the sooner you understand that ant-free living in Costa Rica is not going to happen, the easier it will be to accept living with them.
Army ants, fire ants, and leaf cutters are outside ants and are rarely problematic unless they nest in your yard, or it hurts you to watch your blooming tree walk down the road in bits and pieces. (See my video below) If you sit or step on any of these larger ants, know they can deliver a significantly painful bite. Painful, but not horrible. It will get your attention but the pain fades in minutes.
Fire ant bites are pretty intense, and the pain can last an hour or more. Fortunately, avoiding their prominent nests is fairly easy if you’re paying attention. My worst encounter was at the beach when I walked on a nest in the dark with flip-flops on. Lesson learned: either keep moving or bring a flashlight! The above photograph was taken in a cafetal (coffee plantation) I sometimes hike in but not all nests are that big.
The one and only ant you absolutely must avoid is the infamous Bullet Ant, so named because it can bestow what is recognized as the most painful insect bite in the world. It’s called the 24 hour ant in some countries because that’s how long you will writhe in pain. It is commonly found around the base of trees and their trunks and boughs. It likes large trees with buttresses and others that reach high into the sky. The bullet ant is about an inch long with long legs, however, to most of us, all big ants look alike. That’s why when encountering particularly large ants anywhere in the country, I give them all a wide berth. Remember what I said in Part I about not touching trees without looking.
The pain of ant bites/stings is usually rapidly alleviated by dabbing with ammonia, but some ants have a unique toxin that isn’t primarily formic acid, so it might not help. It won’t hurt to try, but if you experience no relief in 5 minutes, wash it off and try something else. Baking soda usually helps reduce swelling even if it doesn’t help much with pain. Icing and elevating is always helpful. You are most likely to get bitten when you unknowingly sit or stand near a nest, and my best recommendation regarding ants in CR is to assume that there is always an ant nest somewhere nearby.
Bees and wasps (abeja and avispa) Use common sense in avoiding hives and nests. Nothing hibernates here, so assume that every nest or hive is inhabited and will be defended if you make the mistake of disturbing it. None are dangerously venomous unless you have severe allergies to stings.
The Africanized honey bees have thankfully totally mellowed out over the years, so the bees in CR are not a special threat. Bumble bees are also like those found in North America, as are the tiny bees we call sweat bees in TN. There are over 60 species of stingless bees in Costa Rica, and most are quite small. Those little fuzzy black ones that love to hover around sweet fruit and flowers are stingless and harmless.
Wasps here come in many sizes and colors and are just as aggressive as the ones in the U.S. Some can deliver seriously painful stings; the Tarantula Hawk wasp is famous for its painful sting, for example. (This red-orange winged wasp is also found in the U.S.) However, none represent life-threatening danger unless you disturb an entire nest or happen to be allergic.
Mosquitoes (mosquito, zancudo) What can I tell you that you don’t already know about this global pest? Mosquitoes are the original weapon of mass destruction.
Yes, there are many dangerous mosquito-borne illnesses here, but the same is true in Florida, Texas, and dozens of other places. Costa Rica does a great job of educating people about standing water, and has one of the lowest disease rates of any Latin American country. Do your best to prevent bites and rest assured that medical care for mosquito-borne illnesses is excellent here in Costa Rica due to heightened awareness.
There are numerous species of mosquitos in CR, so you’ll see different colors and sizes predominating depending on where you are. Mosquitoes don’t tend to fly very high, so you’ll have fewer ones when you’re on a high balcony vs. sitting on the ground level. Despite the folk lore regarding vitamins or foods working to repel mosquitoes, I’ve never known of any that worked very well, and believe me, I’ve looked into all of them. Some people, like my younger daughter, are simply magnets for them. The humming females choose their victims based on the unique odor signature that we all emit, which is why the hotter and sweatier you are, the more you attract them. The only thing that really helps is masking your odor presence, which is what citronella and Eucalyptus citriodora probably do.
Cockroaches (cucaracha) Roaches are my personal gross out bug. Considering how many of them are found in Costa Rica, I was surprised at how little information there is available about them. If you live in CR, sooner or later you will encounter roaches. If you live at the beach or in a rainforest, it will be sooner.
They come in many sizes and colors, and some can get frighteningly huge. Most of them can fly and all of them can bite, although they rarely do. Having said that, I was once bitten by a really big one that was hiding in a paper bag. Yes, I flipped out but my screams were silent. I still marvel at my self-control that day which was only because I was in front of 15 small children. Lesson learned; never stick your hand inside a bag without looking! If you ever are bitten by a cockroach, I urge you to clean the wound well and apply an antiseptic; I failed to do this and developed a small, ugly infection that left a scar for decades.
Cockroaches are predominantly nocturnal and begin to come out around midnight to see what might be available. If you want to confirm the presence or absence of them in your house, quietly visit your kitchen at 1:00 a.m. and flip on the lights. They like warm damp places so it’s no accident that your kitchen and bathroom will be where you are most likely to encounter them. Rotting wood is particularly attractive to them, and in addition to people or pet food, they will eat almost anything, including fabric, dry wood, and even plastic.
They are the dinosaurs of the insect world and are highly adaptable. Know that they are experts at hiding their egg cases absolutely anywhere by camouflaging them with bits of the surrounding material, regardless of what that is. Once you see one, you’ll understand what I mean.
Cleanliness is next to roachlessness, and every tip I provided in Part I of this post will help you avoid having roaches in your house. Your exterior perimeter will be a critical area to treat in some way to prevent their getting inside to start with.
Scorpions (scorpión or alacrán): Scorpions come in a variety of sizes and colors and every one of them can give you a brief “ouch” prick, or an exquisitely painful sting which can numb the body part (and your tongue) for several hours and cause you to say words you didn’t know you knew. This is here-say on my part, because while I’ve had countless close encounters, I’ve never been stung. I still shake my shoes out before putting them on in many places, though. Shoes are favorite sleeping spots, and so feet and toes are the most common sting recipients. They also like hiding in stacks of paper (files), cardboard boxes, and garden refuse piles. I have encountered them all over the country. Their sleeping position is a geometrically interesting folded up position that is quickly recognizable if you live in scorpion territory.
We don’t have any dangerously venomous scorpions here in Costa Rica, but you’ll naturally want to avoid them. Do know that they will challenge you and can be aggressive. If you’re going to squash one, be decisive; if you don’t kill it, it will be really ticked off! I’ve used bug spray to slow them down before they can hide while I find a sturdy shoe to dispatch with. A flip-flop won’t cut it.
Spiders (araña): Spiders are found everywhere, and like everything else come in every possible size, shape, design, and color variation. From skinny long legged ones to fat and fuzzy, you will see lots and lots of spiders here. You should be aware that there are several varieties of Brown Recluse and Black Widows here, but most other spiders found here are less dangerous.
The scary looking tarantulas (tarántula, pica caballo) are actually relatively harmless. Yes, they can give you a nasty bite, but usually only when cornered or provoked. They tend to be nocturnal, so you could go years without seeing one.
The very large Goliath Birdeater tarantula is enormous (12 inch leg span), and it’s bite can send you to the hospital in pain, but it isn’t deadly and you are unlikely to encounter it unless you are in deep jungle vegetation.
There is one spider you must be aware of because it’s bite can kill you, and it is the large Brazilian Wandering Spider which is now known to be established in Costa Rica.
It’s highly aggressive and got it’s name from its habit of hanging out anywhere at all. It’s a dull fuzzy brown with bright red jaws that it displays during its scare tactic pose. It’s leg span is 6 inches, so it’s not a little hide-in-the-corner kind of spider. It prefers hot moist climates, so rainforest habitat is where it tends to live. It’s also called the banana spider since it’s often found in bunches of bananas destined for export. Most bites occur when people put on boots without shaking said boots out first.
Symptoms include severe pain, breathing difficulties, paralysis, and for men, the bizarre consequence of a bite can be an extremely painful 4 hour erection.
Apparently several people have been bitten by the spider here in Costa Rica, but the only fatalities have been dogs so far. Experts say we just need to be aware this spider is here so that if you are bitten, you know to get yourself to an ER right away for treatment with the anti-venom and/or additional therapy as needed.
Snakes, Frogs, and Toads: I know these aren’t bugs, but I felt I should mention them.
Snakes: Costa Rica is home to 22 species of venomous snakes, most of which reside on the Pacific side of the country. Several of the most deadly snakes in the world are found in Costa Rica, including the Coral and the Bushmaster snakes.
The most venomous of all snakes in CR is the Fer de Lance pit viper which is called the Terciopelo here. At 3 to 8 feet long, the Terciopelo is not a small snake. It’s responsible for most of the 500-800 snake bites each year, mainly because it is found everywhere except in the higher, cooler mountain areas. It’s a relief to know that only about 1% of bite victims succumb to the poison, thanks to widespread availability of anti-venom and excellent snake-bite care here.
You’ll rarely see snakes in the Central Valley urban areas, not that they aren’t here. The small colorful coral snake is the one that I hear the most about, although it isn’t one of the many I’ve encountered over the years. Update: A week after this post went out, a coral crossed my path near my condo. I grew up in East TN coral snake country and know how to confirm its identity. Fortunately, snakes don’t terrify me, and it literally rolled into the grass in a frantic effort to get away from me. No harm done.
Develop sharp eyes for glancing at where you put your feet, and don’t forget to look up when moving through a jungle-type environment. Jungles, sugar cane fields, and banana plantations are among the most common places to encounter the snakes you really want to avoid. If you see one, keep your distance, and remember my part one tip—tread carefully and make noise as you move through jungle paths.
Frogs: Costa Rica is a favorite destination for frog photographers because of the brilliantly colored varieties found here. Many of them have highly toxic skin but you usually have to go out of your way to touch these, and I will assume none of you is considering eating them. A frog leg dinner here could be your last.
Toads: Now we come to the critter I seriously want to warn you about, because at first glance you might only be wowed at its size, failing to realize you are in the presence of a potential killer. I was totally unaware of these large toads until my medium size cocker spaniel got too close to one. The dog was dead within an hour.
The Cane or Marine Toad averages 5-8 inches long but can weigh as much as 3.5 pounds. These are hefty toads! They are found in many tropical and subtropical areas around the world; classified as an invasive species in over 20 countries. Unfortunately, they are found all over Costa Rica. They tend to be active mostly after dark but can be found sleeping under shrubs and low plants during the day.
The warty skin is toxic, and the toad is armed with numerous glands capable of secreting a highly toxic milky-white substance known as bufotoxin. While it is unlikely to kill an adult, small children have died after coming in contact with bufotoxin, and it is supposedly deadly to animals as big as adult crocodiles. I could not confirm if any human deaths have ever occurred in Costa Rica.
Bottom line is if you see a large warty toad, give it plenty of space, and make no attempt to touch it with bare hands. Teach your children to notify you before approaching any kind of frog/toad. Waste no time wiping any toxin off if you have contact. The same advice I’ve added below applies to human children and adults.
If you have pets, know that immediate veterinary care can save them, but the best thing is to try to teach them not to go after the wildlife they see. I know how hard that is, but… If you suspect a toad encounter and/or if your pet is salivating heavily or foaming from the mouth, acting quickly to wipe, rinse and do everything possible to get as much bufotoxin as possible out of the mouth and off of paws and snout could save your pet. I still recommend getting the animal to the vet as soon as possible.
If a neighborhood dog is found dead for no apparent reason, this is credible evidence of a toad in the area. Check your property from time to time. Know that walls help but are not totally effective at keeping toads out. The very young ones are not yet dangerously poisonous and it is this stage of vulnerability to predators that has helped keep their numbers down.
In conclusion, Costa Rica has lots of creepy crawlers, but the only ones you really need to worry about are bullet ants, that big Brazilian spider, and the Cane toad. Chances are good that you’ll never have a close encounter with any of the three.
No matter where in the world you live, you are surrounded by potentially dangerous creepy crawlers. Educate yourself, use common sense, and don’t worry more than you should.
You definitely shouldn’t let fear of any of these creatures be a major factor in deciding about coming to Costa Rica. If you want to worry about something, worry about the traffic!
Pura Vida, everyone, and see you next week!
Picture info on CR spiders: http://www.montezumabeach.com/spiders/
Report in Spanish of Brazilian Spider in Costa Rica: http://www.crhoy.com/archivo/costa-rica-alberga-una-de-las-aranas-mas-venenosas-del-mundo-segun-guinness-world-records/reportaje-especial/
Info on giant toad: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cane_toad