The Atlantic horseshoe crab, Limulus polypehmus, is cold-blooded and big hearted. Her blood is milky and blue; the creamier the better. When she’s healthy, her white amebocytes hang evenly suspended in a crystalline plasma. Amebocytes are what we bleed for at the Associates of Cape Cod, LLC Production Laboratory, a.k.a. The Bleed. We bleed for money.
As a Bleeder—official title Seasonal Production Technician—my job is to rack the crabs and siphon their excess blood to be processed and sold as Limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL), a white powder that detects the presence of harmful bacteria in injectable drugs. Crabs are in season for fishing during the late spring and early summer, which makes this job perfect for college students. An ample supply of seasonal work is one of the perks of living in a coastal Massachusetts town. The boom of tourists provides a regular demand for ice cream scoopers, bar tenders, and bicycle-operated hat vendors. The Bleed was a town favorite. It had nothing to do with tourism, but it followed the same tide. Summertime was in-season. The Bleed provided a steady, 40-hour work week, 8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at better-than-minimum wage pay. It granted you the right to put Production Technician at Endotoxin Detection Laboratory on your resume, which sounded a lot better than Ice Cream Scooper. Bleeders were a homogenous bunch of college kids working for the summer to make fall tuition, or in some cases, to pay for beer.
A horseshoe crab is an arthropod. It’s more closely related to a spider than it is to the hermits, blues, and Chesapeakes that share the name crab. It stores its excess blood in a chamber near the center of its body that sits just above the tail. A chamber. I picture it like a little room, decorated with frilly curtains and a four-poster bed.
To a human with a needle and a 500-milliliter collection bottle, this reserve blood is most easily accessible through the hinge joint that connects the crab’s huge, hard head to its abdomen. Understandably, the crab does not like to expose this joint. It’s the one weakness in a horseshoe crab’s shell; its Achilles’ heel. I’ve learned how to crack it open. I lay my crab down on my lab bench with her legs facing the ceiling. Then, I tickle her underbelly. Her legs flail. She’s helpless, lungless (arthropods don’t have them), but breathless from giggling. Giggling with hate, I think. That’s how I’d giggle if some stranger were tickling my underbelly.
Her telson—that’s the stinger-looking tail that she uses to flip herself over when she’s swimming— jabs angrily at my ribs. She has excellent form and hits her mark, but the attack is her big mistake. To stab, she must bend at her hinge joint, which folds her body in half and exposes that one fleshy spot, the break in her otherwise all-encompassing carapace. Victory is mine.
As she flops and bucks, I lift her off the bench and shove her between two parallel sheets of Plexiglas that have been perfectly spaced on my lab bench. This is my rack. It fits six doubled-over, average-sized adult horseshoe crabs. My current victim is trapped, captured by a human for the second time in twenty-four hours. The first was when she was netted and pulled onto a fishing boat sometime during the night. It must her worst day of her year.
Getting the crabs into the rack is the hardest part of the bleeding. The rest follows quickly:
Remove needle from sterile packaging.
Toss packaging into trash can.
Miss trash can.
Forget about it. The lab lackeys— three college freshmen with burgeoning mustaches—will get it.
Jam the needle into the joint of the first crab. The tissue (skin?) will pop when the needle breaks through.
After breakthrough, stop pushing the needle.
Do the same for the next five crabs.
Bob head to beat of Bone Thugz track that lab lackeys have just put into the CD player.
Watch bottles fill with blood.
When liquid level reaches ¾ of bottle, swap the full vessel for an empty one.
Cover full bottle with Parafilm and set in on a carrying tray.
When carrying tray is full, summon a lab lackey to carry it away to the centrifuge station for further cell processing.
When blood flow stops, remove the depleted specimen from rack.
Place the depleted specimen in the barrel labelled “Bled.”
Grab the next crab from the top of the barrel.
Every day I get a few bottles of bad blood. It isn’t hard to spot. The liquid streams out of the crab and globs into fatty clusters almost as soon as it hits the collection bottle. These clumps are ameobocytes that have clotted in defense against a bacterial assailant. They float like icebergs in a sea of cold blue plasma.
Bad blood can happen for any number of reasons. The crab might be sick, or I might have been sloppy and not properly cleaned my equipment—needle, bottle, and gloves. Either way, there are only two possible parties to blame. The crab or me.
The crabs know this, I think. They know LAL reagent production exploits the little guys: the supplier of raw materials (the crab), the courier (commercial fisherman), and the factory worker (liberal arts majors wearing oversized scrubs). Of these three, the crabs suffer the most. Limulus polyphemus is squeezed and milked for money, but it has one defense. It can give bad blood.
There are several ways for a crab to sabotage the harvest. First, there’s the Fistulator. The Fistulator is a crab that starts squirting blood from an invisible hole in its body. It looks perfectly healthy, so I rack and needle it. Suddenly there is blood everywhere. Fistula!
Blue liquid streams across my lab bench. In one direction, it shoots up into the air like a fountain. In another, it pours downwards. It leeches out of every juncture in the crab’s shell. I can’t stop it, can’t save the crab, and can’t bottle the blood that’s starting to drip onto the floor and form globs. That’s the scientific value of horseshoe crab blood: It visibly clots in the presence of bacteria and right now it is visibly clotting on my shoes.
The Fistulator is bleeding in protest. It suffers in solidarity. It is a martyr for the cause.
The Fistulator crab bleeds itself out and dies.
Rock Solid. Most crabs are pale and slimy at the hinge joint. I know this because I touch about fifty hinge joints a day as I prepare them for my needle. I swab them down with alcohol, running my pointer finger along the divots and wrinkles to make sure everything is clean. It’s gross. It feels like a sphincter muscle. It reminds me of the summer job that I could have had—nannying. It reminds me that I am glad to be here in the lab instead of at a beach villa changing diapers.
The hinge joint usually resists the needle, so I have to jab it hard to insert. Occasionally, I get a crab with skin like titanium, a stubborn fighter who refuses to permit entry. I call him Rock Solid.
Rock Solid’s got the goods. He’s got bottles upon bottles of blood in his cache. That’s why he’s locked up. But Rock Solid doesn’t understand the rules of poker: don’t reveal your hand. He’s revealed his hand. He’s got an ace, so now I’m determined to win. I grab the lower region of the needle and grip my hand into a fist around it. I wedge my right hand underneath and jam both fists up with a push. Snap. The skin breaks. Take that, Rocky.
Blood gushes out onto my lab table and I scramble to find a collection bottle which I set in place and watch the liquid rise. It’s blue, beautiful.
Suddenly it stops rising.
It’s clumping. This blood is clumping. Bad, bad blood. How dare he.
I guess Rock Solid knows that I forgot the second rule of poker: never underestimate your opponent.
Tiny Tim. Some crabs are just barely big enough to bleed. The New England Fisheries Department stipulates that fishable horseshoe crabs need to span at least seven inches across the abdomen. Most fishermen don’t want anything smaller and besides, none of them fish for horseshoe crabs in purpose. Horseshoe crabs are collateral damage, the incidental dross in a haul of lobster, bass, or cod. Horseshoe crabs get caught up and are then separated from the cash cows and tossed back overboard. But some unlucky ones are lugged to shore and repurposed. They can be used as bait, or they can be sold to the Bleed. In either case, they have to be big enough to be worth the effort. Any crab smaller than seven inches is off limits.
In the Bleed, a ruler hangs from a nail on the front wall. It’s marked in red ink at the seven inch mark. “Legal Limit,” it reads.
A few times I’ve measured a crab and found him to be just over: 7 and a quarter inches, or maybe 7 and a third. These little guys are often male. The males are smaller—Tiny Tims, Weak Willies. They’re usually pale gray, because they haven’t lived through enough molts for seaweed or salt to deepen their hue. They’re usually smooth, still small and nimble compared to their lumbering stacker-shell-and-barnacle encrusted elders.
I try to be gentle as I stick in the needle, tried not to push too far. I don’t know what happens if you push too far, but what I picture is the huge and hollow needle ploughing right through the cavity of extra blood and puncturing the tissue on the opposite wall. It would be fatal. All the blood would rush out of the holding bladder and wash over the rest of the tissues. It would mean death.
I try to set the needle gingerly, but I feel like an evil nurse, the kind who wiggles the IV into the soft part of your arm, jabs and pulls back then jabs again like she’s enjoying mashing up your tissues as if she were a chef tenderizing a steak.
“At least you weren’t cod bait, buddy,” I whisper to Tiny Tim as a weak stream of blood trickles out of his body and into the bottle.
His legs twitch. His blot clots.
The Motherlode. We bleeders are under strict orders never to leech a pregnant crab. Pregnant is just terminology; of course the crabs aren’t pregnant, of course the fertilized eggs embed and gestate in the sand and not in a uterus, of course crab ladies do not have human body parts. But some days we get a lot of pregnant crabs, and we need a word to describe them.
Crab pregnancy is in high season from May and June, the months when the crabs swim to shore to spawn their eggs. They mate and spawn, mate and spawn some more, or have just mated, spawned, and are making the trek back to deep-water solitude. Some of the egg-carrying mothers are picked up in nets along the way. I look out for them, but crab anatomy makes them difficult to spot at first glance. A crab mother holds her pearly seeds between her legs in the far recesses of her carapace. She clenches the gametes between her thigh and her shell, using her legs as a sort of net to hold them in place. The eggs have the undeniable look of the ocean—beady, briny, and luminous.
I’m always surprised to find them. I grab a crab, flop it onto my lab table and prepare to plunder. I tickle, she flails. There, beneath her legs, something jiggles. A whole colony of wobbling orbs, a wodgy mass held together by viscous syrup. Yup. I’ve got a motherlode on my hands.
She’s big and burly, as the females usually are. I pick her up with two hands and move her to my Bled bin, hoping that she’ll stay damp until the evening truck arrives to carry her back to shipyard, to carry her back to sea.
The Stinker. Stinkers always lurk at the bottom of the barrel. They give off a putrid cloud, a rancid stench, the raunch of Hades, the stinkiest stink you’ve ever sniffed.
Stinkers make you suffer. It takes about an hour to bleed a full barrel of crabs, and you have to start at the top and work your way down. Sure, you can root around, mess your crabs up into a big tangle trying to find the Stinker, but this will kill them. So instead, you have to slowly descend one crab at a time, a whole hour of working downward an ever-worsening stench is exposed. I’m itching to get my hands on the offending corpse, to grab it and run it to the Dead Crab bucket outside the loading dock.
That’s what Stinkers are—dead crabs.
Stinkers don’t die in the roadkill, dead-bird-on-pavement, pet-rabbit style of dying. Stiff acquiescence is not their way. Stinkers are floppy. They’re soggy. They drip a soupy and viscous liquid, which I think is their internal bits swizzled around like mummy brain and beginning to decompose. Brain smoothie. It leaks out the edges of their softening shell and splatters across the table, across the floor, across my shoes again.
There is no easy way to get a Stinker from my bench to the Dead Crab bucket. It’s a walk of shame, a moribund twist on a pallbearer’s walk down the aisle. I pass my fellow bleeders who turn their heads to laugh, to choke and gag. The Sinker is leaking all over me, sloshing her smell onto my scrubs. She spews her final curse against the net that yanked her from the sea, the hands that tossed her into a barrel, the truck that drove her those ten bumpy, backroad miles to the lab, the brother and sister crabs that piled on top of her, the one that stabbed her with its telson and skewered her body. She died slowly waiting for sunrise and for me to arrive in the lab, to put on my gloves, to receive her body, to bear her bad, bad blood.
Sophie Wetzig is a writer, thanks to the fact that someone taught her the art of letters and words. Aside from eating, it's proved to be her most useful survival skill. She can be found on Twitter (@sophiawetzig).