It is an even hotter day than yesterday in the Kerio Valley. The sun beats down from a pure blue sky, a rare sight after weeks of daily thunderstorms. I have been searching diligently for ants’ nests. I am on the trail of a bizarre and wonderful butterfly, the Giant Cupid, that lives in a bizarre and twisted association with certain kinds of ants in the ground for part of its life (more on that later).
Searching for the ants’ nests involves gently turning over rocks. It is mid-morning and the rocks are already warm to the touch. Thanks to the relentless assault of sun, rain and goats, most of them are well-weathered and readily exposed. On the speckled ground between them an vast assortment of ants run back and forth busy with their daily activities.
Not just ants, but millipedes, crickets and wood-lice or ‘sow-bugs’ as they are sometimes called, also make their homes under the rocks. Each time I turn over a stone there’s a sense of anticipation – and often someone staring back with an indignant look. As if to say “Why are you disturbing my nap?”
Under one rock that is wedged quite deeply I spot a narrow burrow leading into dark depths from its edge. This calls for help – I have a sturdy shovel that I can use for leverage – luckily humans invented tools that can do more that we ever could with our flimsy little hands! With a little resistance and a sighing creak, the rock yields and I roll it over. I kneel down and scan for ants – looking for the tell-tale aggregations of pale larvae and bundled-up pupae.
My hand is resting on the ground by the shovel. I feel something tickling it and look down. Even before I register what it actually is – my entire being has shuddered and I have leapt backwards in surprise (thankfully there was no one else, save for a few bug-eyed goats to witness this entomologist behaving like this!).
As if offended by my unexpected outburst, a large, dark scorpion scuttles under the shovel. Suitably shaken, I regain my composure and step back down to examine the friendly beast. She sits calmly under the shovel as I peer closely and wonder overcomes my initial fear.
This is a magnificent example of an Emperor Scorpion. Emperor Scorpions are members of the genus Pandinus, which means curved in Latin and refers to the long, elegant curved tail bearing the sting at its very tip. This large scorpion, while looking scary, is really quite gentle (for a scorpion that is!). Even though it had the chance to sting me as my hand rested near it, it didn’t. These scorpions are only mildly venomous and use their massive pincers, not their venom, to subdue their prey which includes crickets, millipedes and even small rodents.
I gently move the shovel and the Emperor Scorpion scuttles forward following fast its soothing shadow. Having just displaced her from her cosy burrow, I let her use the spade as a shelter as I continue to pick through the soil for ants before replacing the rock. At once she scuttles under it clicking her claws in contentment at having been restored to her home. I continue on to the next rock – this time I wear gloves…