The Truth About the Brown Recluse

Shy Spider May Not Deserve Such a Deadly Reputation

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Brown recluse spiders have been blamed for tens of thousands of spider bites across the country, but researchers say the shy creatures have been wrongly accused. P. Kirk Visscher/University of California, Riverside hide caption

itoggle caption P. Kirk Visscher/University of California, Riverside
Range Map of the Brown Recluse Spider

The spider's territory, marked here in red, is limited to the southern and central Midwestern states. Yet unconfirmed reports of brown recluse spider bites have been filed from as far away as Alaska. University of California, Riverside hide caption

itoggle caption University of California, Riverside

Diane Barger and her family moved into a farmhouse outside Kansas City, Kansas, six years ago. They were looking for fresh air and country living. What they found were thousands of eight-legged creatures. NPR's Eric Niiler reports on the spider invasion.

At first, the Bargers took little notice of the spiders crawling around their 19th-century limestone home. "We'd see spiders, maybe one a week," says Diane Barger, "until the time when we discovered we had a recluse."

That would be the infamous brown recluse spider. It's the size of a quarter and poisonous. It lives only in the Central Midwest, yet it's blamed for tens of thousands of serious bites across the country every year. After Barger's 13-year-old daughter identified one, the family started finding them all over the house.

"We started looking around, the first night we found about eight, so we think we're going to die in the night," says Diane Barger. By the end of the week, they counted 100 spiders.

As its name suggests, the brown recluse spider is a shy, nocturnal creature that prefers to be left alone. The family moved their beds away from the walls so the spiders couldn't join them under the covers. Barger also contacted a brown recluse expert. He asked the family to collect all the spiders they could for six months. The project turned the family into amateur entomologists.

Every night, Diane and her husband spent up to two hours capturing spiders in a jar. It became a contest. On their best night, they came in with a haul of 37. At the end of six months, they had trapped 2,055.

Yet no one in the family was ever bitten. The Journal of Medical Entomology recently published the story of the Bargers and two other Midwestern families. Study author and spider expert Rick Vetter of the University of California, Riverside says these case studies show that the brown recluse is not the terror that many people believe it is.

"Spiders get blamed for all kinds of wounds," says Vetter. Current research is finding that in many cases, spiders aren't the cause.

Kevin Osterhout, attending physician at Philadelphia's Children's Hospital, sees several dozen people each year with bumps and bites who are convinced they've been bitten by the brown recluse. Yet the brown recluse isn't found in Pennsylvania. Its range is confined to Central Midwestern states such as Oklahoma and Missouri.

Doctors are largely to blame for perpetuating this myth, says Osterhout. "A lot of people come in with their wound, not knowing what it is, and a number of doctors will tell them that it is a brown recluse spider bite."

Entomologists agree that the brown recluse spider does occasionally bite people, and its venom can cause serious problems if the bite is left untreated. But Osterhout says bees and wasps and other species of spiders are more likely to cause problems than the brown recluse.

Like many people who live in brown recluse territory, the Bargers have learned to share their Kansas home.

"We love it here and the spiders haven't bothered us after this length of time. We're not really too worried about them coming out and attacking us now," says Diane Barger.

Now that it's wintertime, the spiders are dormant and aren't bothering anybody. But Barger says she'll be hunting them again when spring arrives.

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