Brown recluse These spiders more common, but not as malevolent as we think

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The easiest identifier for the brown recluse spider is the dark image that resembles a violin profile on the back just behind the head, with the skinny "neck" of the fiddle pointing rearward.

Despite how much we outsize them, we're spooked by spiders.

Spiders are legion. Oodles of the arachnids are around and about us, so you'd think we'd acclimate to them a little better. But, no, we irrationally fear them.

After all, most spiders are effectively harmless to us. Although a small percentage of spiders might bite if restrained under stress, usually nothing comes of it. Spiders don't want to battle a human, and even if they get caught inadvertently in a squeeze and chomp, chances are the offending human will not even notice the defensive token.

Mostly, we fear spiders because they're creepy looking. If they got as big as cocker spaniels, we'd be loath to share the planet with them.

No, spiders are hardly as sinister as our fears make them out to be. But with that being said, a couple of spiders in our part of the world aren't quite so inconsequential. One is the long-famous black widow. The other is the brown recluse, a spider that has received an incredible amount of attention in modern times, yet seems to linger in a haze of mythology, misinformation and apprehension.

People are often inept at identifying brown recluses, so they double down on hating all spiders. Even so, brown recluses may be more common and closer to home than spider-haters realize. They may be in the home.

On the assuring side, living with brown recluses is not like having rabid wolverines lurking in your closet. The threat they pose seemingly has been highly overstated by worst-case-scenario accounts. Many recluse infestations in homes go unrecognized.

The brown recluse, Loxosceles reclusa, is a tan-brown spider of moderate size compared to other spiders of our region. Its oblong body is only about three-eighths-inches long while the legs surrounding its body are each about one inch long.

The most identifiable characteristic of the recluse is a darker brown pattern in the shape of a violin on its back. The violin body shape backs up to its head and the part that looks like the violin neck points backward toward the spider's abdomen, the apparent butt.

Another more precise characteristic of the species is that the brown recluse has three pairs of eyes, a total of six, while other spiders have eight eyes. But who gets face-to-face closely enough to count the eyes on a spider, right?

As arachnid personalities go, the brown recluse is rather shy. It tends to be nocturnal and does most of its business at night. It's a hunter of small insects, and indeed it pursues them mostly in conditions of darkness.

Brown recluse are native to and mostly found in the U.S. within a roughly circular region of the South and the Midwest. The native range covers all or parts of 17 states, the geographical center of it seeming to be Arkansas.

Within the range, which includes all but some easternmost counties in Kentucky, brown recluse are plentiful and widely distributed. They live in wood and tree debris naturally, but they flourish in man-made structures -- under porches, steps, outbuildings and, hey, in buildings, too.

Anywhere it's warm, mostly dry and sheltered in darkness is good brown recluse territory. That can be in the garage or inside within closets, storage bins, attics, crawl spaces or most anywhere with a little privacy from humans and bright light penetration.

Indoors, a brown recluse might be holed up in a closet in a shoe or clothing rack by day. At night, the shy spider might enjoy a shutdown of illumination to come out of hiding and trek down hallways and across rooms to hunt prey of smaller insects.

Many recluse-people problems occur when a spider bumbles into a human by hiking up a hanging blanket onto bedding -- and a sleeper rolls over and traps the recluse. Another typical scenario is when a human picks up an item of clothing that was lying on the floor and puts it on, trapping a sheltered recluse inside. In each case, the spider may bite.

(Hint: It never hurts to shake out clothing and shoes before dressing.)

The bite itself isn't much, and it's usually not detected by people. Venom that may be injected is a different matter.

Recluse venom is reported to be highly toxic, reputedly more nasty that that of rattlesnakes. A saving grace is that a brown recluse packs only a tiny bit of the stuff.

Some recluse bites can be serious. The venom may cause no symptoms for hours, then produce pain at the bite, followed by inflammation and a blister. In the worst cases, this progresses to a spreading open wound as tissues are destroyed by necrosis.

The wound can last for weeks before healing and leaving a nasty scar. The worst part, however, is that in a few cases the bite can trigger an immune system reaction resulting in nausea, fever and muscle pain, in extremes followed by coma and/or death.

But relax. In more than 90% of recluse bites, no serious symptoms occur. Most adults won't need to visit a doctor. In many recluse bites, the victims never know they were bitten.

Having experienced a brown recluse bite, I can attest that minor symptoms in that instance were noticeable but no big deal. I wouldn't want to do it daily, but it's not something I'd worry about avoiding.

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at outdoors@paducahsun.com.

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