Q. I was recently bitten by a brown recluse in my home and am disheartened to hear people online say that these spiders are hard to kill. This cannot be true! The pain and suffering is just too much to go through again. (I was bitten over my left eye & still can't see very well.) Please help me kill these beasts! I cannot risk getting bitten again or allowing my family or friends to suffer through this.
- ---"Z" in Lewes DE
A. Well, "Z", I have really good or really bad news. The odds are one in a million that a brown recluse bit you. For one, your symptoms don't match up. As noted spider researcher Rick Vetter of the University of California at Riverside explains, "people who are bitten by a brown recluse don't feel very ill." Most bites, if they result in anything, cause a little pimple-like pustule. Some people will develop a more serious skin lesion, but they won't feel sick.
It's much more likely that something like a sty, or a bite from a no-seeum or mosquito swelled up your eye. And, hey—if it was a mosquito, and that mosquito was carrying West Nile virus, it could have swelled up your eye and given you those flu-like symptoms.
Your address—way outside the mid-Western range of the recluse—is the second reason. Now, if you just moved to Delaware from someplace like Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas or Oklahoma (the population epicenters for this spider), you might have brought some of the feared spiders to the Northeast with you. But it is more likely, says Vetter, that you are a victim of what we'll call "California hysteria". It seems that physicians in that state have 'confirmed' many more cases of brown recluse bites than the entire number of brown recluses that have ever been found in the state. (This is also true, he notes, for Oregon, Washington, Florida, South Carolina and Canada.)
How can this be? Spurred on by folklore, fear and the Internet, "many people insist they were bitten by a spider—specifically a brown recluse—and very few doctors know what a spider bite actually looks like, so they go along with it," explains Vetter. That's a dangerous medical practice, as it means something else—like shingles, Lyme disease or a necrotizing bacteria—is going undiagnosed and untreated. (Vetter feels that the true cause of many of these 'spider bites' is an antibiotic-resistant staph infection known in the medical world as 'MRSA'.)
One of the reasons that people cling to their brown recluse bite diagnoses, he adds, is that studies have shown that "80% of people HATE spiders, and 4 to 8% have full-blown, all-out arachnophobia—an irrationalfear of spiders"
For proof that this fear probably IS irrational in the case of the brown recluse, we turn to an article published in the Journal of Medical Entomology in 2002, in which Vetter and a colleague show that recluses aren't all that reclusive in their native Midwest:
- The researchers personally collected 40 in a Missouri barn in 75 minutes, adding that, "we would have collected more, but we ran out of vials."
- An 8th grade teacher in Oklahoma sent his students out to collect insects. In about seven minutes, they had collected 60 brown recluses from around a flagpole outside the school, picking them up with their fingers. Not one bite.
- And finally, a woman in Lenexa, Kansas collected 2,055 brown recluse spiders in six months in her 1850s-built home. Her family of four has been living there for eight years, and not one bite.
Dr. Deborah Smith, a professor at the University of Kansas, agrees. "They are ubiquitous in our area", she notes, "and yet confirmed bites are rare. Contrary to people's fears, they are just not aggressive and don't bite that often." Like Vetter, she agrees that the most "confirmed diagnoses" come from states that don't even have them. (And I have to add that virtually all the emails I've gotten about brown recluse bites—some with really unpleasant photos attached—come from outside their region.)
But if fear them you must, Dr. Smith says to clean up your clutter, don't use bed skirts that reach all the way to the floor, don't throw your clothes on the floor, and if you do, shake them out before putting them on. Oh, and leave cobweb spiders alone. She says that these highly beneficial arachnids are fierce predators of the brown recluse.
Q. Is there anything I can use to keep spiders out of our home? We live on a lake so of course we have lots of insects around. We don't mind the spiders so much when they are outside, but indoors it seems like I'm always on cobweb patrol. I have four children and two cats and don't want to use chemicals in my home. I hope you can suggest something besides cleaning; I do that all the time.
- ---Mary Beth; Brown's Lake in Salix, IA
…oh, and the dreaded brown recluse!
For lots more info about the brown recluse and other spiders, including maps of their ranges and numerous medical articles confirming the over-diagnosis of spider bites, visit this gateway website from the University of California.