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Eight-legged imposters

Richard Zack, professor of entomology at Washington State University, examines a real brown recluse spider.
Richard Zack, professor of entomology at Washington State University, examines a real brown recluse spider.

Think you’ve seen brown recluse spiders? Think again

Spiders get a lot of bad press. A Web search brings up thousands of pictures of grossly infected supposed spider bites and videos featuring people losing limbs and organs to necrotizing fasciitis after they’ve been bitten by stealthy arachnids.

Spiders have a reputation for hiding, lurking and sprinting out when we least expect them, attacking and biting.

Our fear is irrational – after all we are many times larger than even the biggest tarantula – but knowing that doesn’t always help calm us down.

Here’s the good news: The brown recluse, which is most often blamed for bites and is the star of thousands of horrific YouTube videos, doesn’t live in the Inland Northwest.

“The only time we find the brown recluse here is if it travels here on a truck,” said Richard Zack, professor of entomology at Washington State University and the curator of WSU’s M.T. James Entomological Collection. “They can’t establish here so it’s very, very unlikely that you will see one or get bitten by one in this area.”

The brown recluse is common in the southern United States and it is true that its toxin causes necrotizing fasciitis around its bite – but Zack said it’s just not fair to blame it for bites where it doesn’t live.

Over the years, people have dropped off dozens of alleged brown recluses captured in the Inland Northwest for Zack to identify. So far, none has turned out to be a brown recluse.

So, what is that large brownish spider hunkering down in the bottom of your shower?

“The most common one would be a wolf spider or the funnel web spider, which is the group hobo spiders belong to,” Zack said, explaining that all spiders have a toxin they use to subdue their prey. “You can get almost any spider to bite you if you prod it enough.”

Zack said the most common dangerous spider in the Spokane-area is the black widow – recognized by its shiny black color and small red hourglass shape on its underside.

“The black widow is actually a very shy spider,” Zack said. “They like underground wells where they can sit and wait for beetles and caterpillars to come by so they can eat them.”

Even a black widow bite will probably not kill you.

“Unless you are a small child, a very old person or somehow your health is already compromised, you will not die,” Zack said. “You will feel sick but you will not die.”

It’s very difficult to identify a spider bite unless you see it happen. Some people say spider bites come in threes – breakfast, lunch and dinner – but Zack said that’s highly unlikely.

“If you are out camping you probably got a mosquito or a flea bite,” he said, adding that the main reason bites become infected is a lack of cleaning. “Use hand sanitizer on it, or wash it really well with soap and water.”

Zack said fear of spiders is so common he believes it’s inherent in people, like a reflex. He admits to jumping as much as the next person if a spider surprises him while he’s doing laundry in the basement. Yet spiders don’t deserve the bad reputation they’ve gotten.

“The biggest misconception people have is that they are overly dangerous – they are not,” Zack said, adding that they are usually not aggressive or confrontational either. “If a spider senses there’s something going on in its environment it’s more likely to leave than anything else.”


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