Campbell Vaughn: It’s rare to spot a brown recluse in these parts

The characteristic violin shaped mark is seen on a preserved Brown Recluse Spider displayed at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History in Washington. CAROLYN KASTER/ASSOCIATED PRESS

What has six eyes, eight legs and has never been been positively identified in the wild in Richmond, Columbia, Burke, Lincoln or McDuffie counties or almost the entire state of South Carolina? As a matter of fact, it has only been spotted in a few counties south of Interstate 20 in Georgia ever. The arachnid in question is the brown recluse spider (Loxosceles reclusa).

 

UGA Entomologist Nancy Hinkle said, “In all of recorded history, fewer than 100 brown recluse spiders have been collected in Georgia, despite hundreds of pest control operators and entomology students avidly looking for them.”

It seems that a combination of arachnophobia and medical misdiagnosis is the main culprit of the lore of the brown recluse. University of California-Riverside has a great website dedicated to spiders with all kinds of fun arachnid stuff. Pest management expert Rick Vetter from UCR is considered the expert on the brown recluse spider and has made it a mission to debunk myths concerning the over diagnosis of brown recluse bites.

In one of Vetter’s studies in South Carolina in 1990, 940 physicians responded to a survey asking for diagnosed brown recluse spider bites for the year and the results were that doctors reported 478 in the Palmetto State. Interestingly enough, there are only a few dozen confirmed brown recluse spiders identified in the whole state, ever.

The brown recluse range is mainly the midwest and southeast, but fringes Georgia only in the northwestern part of the state. When found, the brown recluse is exactly what it says it is, reclusive. It is active at night and lives in dark, quiet places like basements and woodpiles. It is not aggressive, but will bite.

The bite is usually not felt when it occurs and will most likely appear as a little red and itchy. Ninety percent of brown recluse bites are not medically significant and heal very nicely. Often these bites heal without medical intervention and treatment. If the bite does progress into a bigger medical issue, the venom can gradually break down human tissue. The wound can get larger and move deeper into the muscle causing deep crater scarring when finally healed. It is very rare that someone would die from a brown recluse spider bite. Many conditions are misdiagnosed as brown recluse bites when their cause is something else like a small wound infection, bad reaction to medication or a diabetic ulcers.

There are some good ways to distinguish a brown recluse from some commonly known spiders in our area. A brown recluse has a dark brown violin shape on the cephalothorax (the portion of the body to which the legs attach). The neck of the violin points backward toward the abdomen and is only on the back of brown recluse not the belly. However, what you should look at instead is the pattern of six eyes in three separate pairs, which is unlike most spiders who have eight eyes in two rows of four.

If the legs are more than one color, the legs have spines instead of fine hairs or you find an orbital web in the open, it is not a brown recluse spider. This is all good information for designing authentic kid’s Halloween costumes.

Now that one of my childhood playground insect horror stories is officially debunked, I am going to keep my eyes open for black widows.

Reach Campbell Vaughn, the UGA Agriculture and Natural Resource agent for Richmond County, by emailing augusta@uga.edu.

 

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