The ways of the wild can be baffling, so it's only natural to want to simplify them. From the behavior of bees to the phases of the moon, the folk superstitions surrounding the outdoors are too numerous to count. Some are harmless—but following others, under the wrong circumstances, could get you into a lot of trouble. So it’s time to ditch the myths. Start with these five.
Myth: All scorpions will kill you.
Reality: Although all scorpions contain venom, not many are actually dangerous. Out of the approximately 1,500 scorpion species in the world, 25 can administer a potentially lethal dose of venom. Only one of those, the Arizona bark scorpion, lives in the United States.
Though they’re most common in Arizona, you may also come upon the small, straw-colored arachnids in New Mexico, Nevada and southern California. They are active at night and like to stay in cool, humid environments, but hibernate through the winter months. A sting from one of these critters causes pain and swelling at the sting site; victims may also experience muscle twitching, numbness and frothing at the mouth.
If you have the bad luck to be on the wrong end of an Arizona bark scorpion’s tail, don’t panic: According to Arizona State University, no human has died from a scorpion sting in their state for more than forty years. Antivenom, widely available where the scorpion is found, further reduces the risk.
Scorpions are not aggressive creatures, and only sting when they feel threatened, like when they’re stepped on. If you find yourself on their home turf, treat the local wildlife with respect, and make sure to shake out your boots.
Myth: Vultures circling means a dead animal is near.
Reality: In any old Western, a flock of vultures circling overhead means there’s a carcass (or some poor cowboy about to become one) nearby. The reality is a lot more mundane.
Vultures and other birds of prey soar on thermal currents, warm streams of air that rise up from the hot ground. The heated, less dense air allows the birds to swiftly gain altitude and stay aloft without exerting much energy, since they don’t have to flap their wings. When one bird finds a good updraft, other birds of prey will join, forming a kettle (the scientific name for that avian circle of death from the movies).
If you see a kettle while hiking, it’s not because the birds have spotted a dead animal, or because they think you and your partners are goners: Vultures will swoop down to a food source the moment they spot it. By riding the thermals, they’re either preparing to migrate or searching for food.
Myth: Lakes do not have currents.
Reality: Large bodies of freshwater like the Great Lakes are like mini oceans, subject to many of the same flows and currents, some of which can send water—and any swimmers in it—rushing away from shore. A staggering 446 people have drowned in the Great Lakes since 2010, according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Projects, and those large bodies of freshwater can experience rip currents, just like the ocean. But even smaller lakes experience currents sometimes.
Wind is the biggest factor in creating currents on lakes, pushing surface water around to create waves and seiches—standing waves within an enclosed body of water. (Picture water sloshing around in a bathtub, from one side to the other. That’s the basic idea of a seiche.)
Even without wind, however, the water within a lake is consistently flowing because of density changes caused by temperature. When the sun heats up the surface water in a shallow section of the lake, the water becomes less dense there than at deeper spots, since deep water distributes the energy over a wider area. The resulting change in pressure pushes water away from the shoreline, and colder, deeper stuff rises up to replace it.
Myth: More bugs means water is nearby.
Reality: In an arid environment, the presence of water-loving insects like mosquitoes and dragonflies often means that a water source is nearby. In more humid climes, chances are the insects are there as a result of puddles or other standing water, where they breed.
Additionally, not all bugs have aquatic larvae: Only 7 percent of North American insects spend part of their life cycle in water. So unless you can positively identify the swarm as part of that small group, and you’re in a dry area, don’t assume that those pests mean a body of water is nigh.
A better indicator of a nearby water source? A conglomeration of larger animals in one area. While big critters do travel long distances, if you see a variety of them in close proximity, it’s a safe bet that they’ve gathered around a watering hole.
Myth: You can suck the venom out of a snakebite.
Reality: This one’s dangerous because it’s so widespread: Many drugstores still sell “snakebite kits” with a razor blade, a tourniquet, and a suction cup. But if you’re unlucky enough to be bitten by a snake, trying to suck out the venom will just make it worse.
First of all, it doesn’t work–snake venom spreads too rapidly through the lymphatic system. In addition, putting your (or a friend’s) mouth on a bite introduces germs to the open wound, potentially causing an infection.
Suction cup extractors don’t work any better. A 2004 study from the Annals of Emergency Medicine used an extractor pump on humans with simulated snakebite wounds containing mock venom; practically none of the bad stuff made it out.
Antivenom is the only proven treatment for snakebite, and if you try to extract venom, you’re simply postponing getting your patient into the medical system. The chance of dying from a snakebite, even from a notoriously poisonous snake like a copperhead or timber rattlesnake, is very low—only 5 to 6 people in the United States die per year from a venomous snakebite, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). But if victims didn’t seek medical assistance, the CDC estimates that number would be significantly higher.