The Violin Spider (Brown Recluse)

"Along Came a Spider"
"Spider Bites Ravage Men"
"She Lost Limbs to Spider's Bite"

Have you seen headlines like this? These are all articles from major newspapers in the United States in the past few years. What are the articles talking about? They are publicizing the reported attacks on people by The Brown Recluse Spider - Loxosceles reclusa.

How accurate are these articles? Not very. In fact, the second two headlines were from California newspapers, and in both cases it was shown that the problems the people suffered from were not even caused by spider bites, but likely from infections of other kinds, such as bacteria. The most highly publicized of the two was the one that states "She Lost Limbs to Spider's Bite", in which a patient in a hospital went into a coma for several months, and when she awoke from the coma she found doctors had amputated parts of both legs, both hands, and her nose due to a spreading infection, and the news media pounced on the episode, claiming it was caused by "violin spider bites".

Calls to the health department in that area showed us that there never was a thought, by medical personnel, that it was a spider bite. The patient had a long history of circulatory problems and was on medication for other things. However, this did not stop the major media from scaring the heck out of the public throughout the state for over a week, and never retracting the false story. Why do they do such things? Because bad news and scary things sell papers.

What is the truth about the Violin Spider?

This spider certainly exists, but is far less menacing than our urban legends promote. The Violin Spider is one of several species of spiders in a group called Loxosceles, and they are characterized by a rather distinct "violin" shaped marking on the top of their thorax. This also gives them another common name of "fiddle back" spiders, and the most notorious of the group, Loxosceles reclusa, also goes by the name of the Brown Recluse Spider. This describes the habit it has of hiding when possible, hunting for food at night by wandering around the structure and hiding in the daytime.

Many other kinds of spiders are similar in appearance. They may be the same size, brown, long legged, and even have the vague outline of a violin on top. However, the one way you absolutely can identify the Violin Spiders is by using a magnifying glass and looking at their eyes. They have six of them, arranged in 3 pairs in an arc across the front of their head. No other kinds of spiders have eyes arranged in this manner.

Where do Violin Spiders live?

This is an absolutely amazing thing. The Brown Recluse is fairly common in states in the south central, such as Oklahoma, Texas Missouri, and east toward Florida. It does not reside in California, and yet California residents report the highest number of Brown Recluse bites of any state in the country. In California it has been verified only a half dozen times in 40 years, each time as an isolated spider that had hitch-hiked in with packaging, furniture, boxes, etc.

Here are a few statements from the University of California:

  • "the Brown Recluse has become the UFO, Elvis, and Bigfoot of the spider world"
  • "in California people just want to believe the spider bit them"
  • "the Brown Recluse has attained an urban legion status in California"
  • "medical personnel will diagnose "brown recluse bite" because that is the most common and most dynamic cause of necrotic wound that they have read about"

There is a rare, related species in the desert in the southwest, in California and Arizona, but few reports of bites come from where it lives. There also is a large species in South America that on a few occasions has been reported in the United States.

--Map from the University of California at Riverside

Is the Brown Recluse Spider dangerous?

The bite of the Brown Recluse certainly can cause a problem, but it rarely could be considered life threatening. In the United States there is only one spider group that is known to cause death, and that is the Black Widows. In over a century there have been around 200 deaths from Black Widow bites, half of them in California. However, the symptoms of the bites from these two groups of spiders are very, very different. The Black Widow is one of the few spiders in the U.S. that injects a nerve toxin that may affect the entire body and cause a variety of possible symptoms.

The venom of the Brown Recluse is, like all the other biting spiders in this country, a cytotoxic venom, meaning it attacks only the local area surrounding the bite, causing destruction of the skin at that point. University spider experts believe that the effect may range from virtually no effect, to a typical open sore about the size of a dime, to severe skin lesions and infection. It would be the highly sensitive person who would react this severely, and there have yet to be any reported deaths attributed to a true bite of the Brown Recluse Spider.

There is no antidote for Brown Recluse venom, since the cost of creating and distributing such a thing would be astronomical, and not supported by the low hazard the bite actually causes. The problem, aside from the wild myth itself, is that the venom from the Brown Recluse is removed from our system very slowly, perhaps over a course of several months. Thus, the effect of cell death at the site of the bite may continue for weeks, until our body is able finally to metabolize it and remove it.

What are the symptoms of the Brown Recluse bite?

Like the visible skin effect this may vary widely. Some people do not even detect the bite until hours or days later when a reaction at the site of the bite begins to develop. Others report a "pin prick" feeling or slight stinging sensation, followed in a few hours by intense burning and pain. Within 24 hours this may lead to general feelings of illness - fever, chills, nausea, weakness - followed by swelling and tenderness at the site of the bite, with a lesion beginning to form at the center. The healing process could take as long as six to eight weeks.

In a very sensitive individual, or someone who does not care for the open wound and allows it to become infected, there could be complications of liver damage or kidney damage, and possibly gangrene infection setting in at the wound. If you truly believe you were bitten by a Brown Recluse spider you should contact your doctor. First aid measures, in the meantime, include applying an ice pack to the bite site, and possibly an antiseptic to reduce the chance of infection.

If it isn't a spider bite, then what is it?

Medical experts have identified many, many other maladies that have symptoms somewhat similar to the bite of the Brown Recluse. Of these the most common, by far, is bacterial infections. According to spider experts at the University of California it is felt that the vast majority of the times "brown recluse bite" is diagnosed by a doctor it actually is a bacterial infection - the so-called "flesh-eating bacteria". A short list of other possibilities includes:

  • Lyme Disease
  • Chronic herpes simplex
  • Diabetic ulcer
  • Tick bites
  • Bed sores
  • Poison oak or poison ivy
  • Many others with medical names

An excellent web site you can visit that offers a great deal of factual information on the Brown Recluse and its bites is:

http://spiders.ucr.edu/
(made available by the University of California.)

I live in a state where the Brown Recluse does occur. How do I prevent it?

If you are in one of the areas where the Brown Recluse can be common you might be wise to call a licensed pest control company for control and prevention. Professional companies have newer materials to use that may not be available on retail store shelves. These newer insecticides offer very low odor and very low toxicity to people and pets, and yet are outstanding for the control of spiders.

Other steps you can take to discourage the presence of spiders and other pests include:

  • Remove trash, old boxes, piles of lumber, piled clothing, and general clutter
  • Store boxes and other items off of the floor
  • Dust and vacuum more frequently - the Brown Recluse likes to hide in quiet, undisturbed areas
  • Make sure all window and door screens, as well as screens to crawl spaces, are in place
  • Shake out shoes and clothing before putting them on, check towels before using
  • Handle firewood while wearing gloves