Searching for Scorpions at Night

To get close enough to a wild scorpion to take its photo is scary: the Arizona bark scorpion isn’t deadly, but it’s the most venomous scorpion in the United States, with a sting that causes severe pain.

The Scorpion Master

It’s more terrifying for the scorpion, I’m guessing. It’s Halloween weekend in Phoenix, and I’m less than an inch away from its body, a 4x micro lens on my camera phone in one hand and a Scorpion Master black light flashlight in the other. I don’t kick or turn over any rocks, and I periodically sweep the light around my feet.

They either run or freeze in place, and I get way too close for comfort. Afterward, I’m shaking.

Getting to know a demon

No one knows for sure why scorpions glow in UV light. It may have to do with how they see each other, or how their prey sees them. One theory is that they sense and avoid starlight and moonlight, the weak UV light from the night sky that enables predators to see them, and gravitate toward shadows and darker nights.  If this is true, my black light flashlight–marketed for extermination purposes–is probably incredibly terrifying. If they survive predators, scorpions can live for up to 25 years, and a up to a whole year with no food. There are rumors that they can survive being frozen solid. That they can survive a nuclear bomb.

During the day, a scorpion is a translucent brown. Finding one is appealing only due to how disgusting and scary it looks. But at night, under ultraviolet light, it looks like something from space.

Like putting on colored glasses, using colored lights can unlock a totally new world with completely different rules.

Animated GIF showing two light sources: camera flash and black light flashlight

The glowing scorpion is still diabolical, but in a totally different way. This supernatural glow makes it looks like an alien, or like something one would only see at a science museum, like glowing jellyfish in tanks. Or in a natural-wonder situation, like the glow worm caves of New Zealand I once visited. But unlike, say, the eight-foot scorpions swam the oceans in the time before dinosaurs, this scorpion is common in the American southwest, even in relatively urban area of Phoenix where I found these.

The scorpion in an ultraviolet world is a visceral example how much of a difference color can make: it has reversed my disgust response, drawing me toward the monster.

Scorpion in crack on garden wall

Glow hunting

All photography of living things in the wild gives me a rush that must be the hunting instinct: the excitement of stalking, the patient, slow stillness and repetition of technique, the satisfaction of capturing a picture.

Finding a scorpion under a UV light is at once scary and beautiful, informational and dangerous. It makes a new world, a glowing landscape, out of what would otherwise have been an ordinary night, walking by a pile of rocks, or fallen leaves on the ground.

Close up (4x) of scorpion on leaves

All Photos by Emily Wick