THE BROWN RECLUSE

I moved to Texas in 1973 and bought a little wooded piece of raw land in 1980. I had heard about the Brown Recluse and learned of the impact of its bite but had never seen one. Few people knew much about them. I met this fellow who had been bitten on the inside of his arm while working under a car near a woodpile. When I saw the arm, it was a real mess. He had lost about 2-3 cubic centimeters of flesh due to necrosis. His current physician was unable to stop the progressing destruction of the flesh on his arm. After changing physicians and being sutured up, he healed in about a month. I was to learn more about the Recluse.

One day, returning from an excursion to my land which was about 65 miles southwest of where I lived in Richardson, I noticed a spider sitting on the ashtray of my 1972 Blazer and quickly cautioned my four year old daughter not to get near it. It remained there the last mile to home and as I kept my eyes on it as much as I could, I knew it was a spider I had never seen before. My adrenalin was beginning to flow as it appeared to have a characteristic "fiddle" on its back. Capturing it in a transparent plastic container, I soon realized it was a Brown Recluse. Not long after, I began finding them in dry, old wood laying on the ground and under loose bark well up on dead trees. These things hate light and are quite reluctant to move, but when they do they can be quite fast. When they are not tending a web, they will often move rapidly a short distance then stop.

The more familiar Black Widow has a 2-3cm leg span and a pea sized abdomen. I have seen one giant Black Widow (Latrodectus Mactans) of 6-7 cm leg spread and a 12 mm abdomen. It was in a scalloped. red Permian sandstone cliff along a roadcut leading to Childress, Texas. That cliff, about four meters high, was home to several hundred of these creatures marked by an abdominal red hourglass. They occupied about a three by five meter area that seemed to offer little shade during the day. Distributed equally about the one of such large proportions the diminutive others made her the certain queen of the cliff. Partly sunny but very bright conditions were bizarre for this "femme fatale". Probably most do not realize the immature specimen of the Widow is not black but white though still having a glossy enamel looking surface. As they mature, red, yellow and ultimately black panels appear like racing stripes on their abdomen thus they are very brightly colored. All changes to black except the hour glass and oftentimes a small red dot just above the spinerettes. The distribution of the Widow is world wide excepting perhaps polar regions; and there are some minor variations in color.

The Brown Recluse (Loxosceles Reclusa) comes in various shades of tan to brown to darker grey-brown. Its abdomen is ellipsoidal and significantly smaller than the Widow thus facilitating its lodging under baseboards, bark, newspapers and in the corrugations of cardboard where I would find the young specimens in polished stainless steel corrugated shipping protectors at a metal fabrication plant where I once worked. This is how they can be found in stockrooms, and I've known of contacts in supermarkets having undesireable consequences. Thoracically sizewise the Widow and the Recluse are nearly the same but the Recluse's distinctive fiddle on top with their eyes at the base contrasts with the shiny black of the Widow.

It was not long before I realized, I could find these critters, at will, in a relatively short time, even less time than it takes to find a Widow, however in different seasons. During warm weather, almost any unused hole in the ground, particularly if bottomed by water, is suitable as a home for Black Widows. Peering down and observing the blue sky reflection on the water will often reveal a Widow, web- centered and upside down with her hourglass exposed, unless of course, too much vibration is created when approaching the hole. Widows love damp, dark, sandy places and I've been told they come out along the street gutters at night in Tucson, AZ. Water well housings are a favorite, or cavities under rocks, around basement windows, etc.

Like the Widow, the Brown Recluse is very active in the summer and more likely to be found in warmer climates. Like the Widow and unlike most spiders, the Brown Recluse is not an annual spider. They both hibernate and may endure several years. However, unlike the widow, the Recluse can be hunted much more easily in the winter, particularly when the temperature is below about 4.4 degrees C. So strong it was once used for the cross-hair reticles in gun scopes, the Widows web is chaotic and yellowish. No nice circular orb structures for her or the Recluse. From under a baseboard, the Recluse will quite randomly stick to the floor a bluish white extremely soft and sticky web at various places in an area not much larger than 25 x 25 cm. At night when entering a room and looking at the floor, one has but a microsecond to see them before they are into their hiding place. Naturally they are more evident in light places but are seldom seen there. So, if you thought you saw a movement on the floor when you turned on the light, double-check. White floors would seem appropriate in Recluse country.

I tried, around 1982, to locate a scientific establishment that might be interested in these creatures and did not find one; but after several years and after repeated encounters with the Recluse, I tried anew. This time I found an interested client in The Carolina Biological Supply Company. After committing to send them 100 of the Recluses for a small fee, I started actively hunting them. In fact, I actually started creating suitable abodes out of substances they seemed to like. After re-shingling my house back in Richardson, I brought the old shingles out to the land to place along the fence to control grass and make mowing easier. Well, as shingles do, they provided a nice sheltered area sitting on a pallette and the cockroaches, recluses, scorpions and copperheads took to the favored conditions. The slotted spaces in the shingles often offered moisture condensate for them to exist. Under loose bark or at the base of rotting stumps are found much insect life feeding on the wood. Holes from borers provide ideal places for overwintering. Here the Recluse spins a gossamer, bluish-white, ultra sticky cocoon-like enclosure for it to curl up in during cold weather. Easily finding these abodes, I would peel them back with a nice long screwdriver and roll the spider into a long, narrow olive jar, sometimes gathering several at a time. Before their antifreeze began circulating, I would transfer them to another jar filled with alcohol. As one might expect, the warmer it is the faster they get going. Long, smooth rubber dairy boots with pant legs inside and nice long welder's gloves provide some protection. Removing bark from elevated places on trees, one should stand upwind and pay very close attention to what is occurring.

A fellow from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Galveston called me one day and requested some live specimens. After he sent me the containers, I sent the spiders. Finding a shipper was a bit of a problem, but solved. They attached very tiny electrodes to the Recluse and when shocked, it ejected a small quantity of its flesh dissolving venom. Toxicology studies were then carried out when sufficient quantities were acquired. I asked for a copy of the paper, but never received one.

After several years of hunting, I called the local NBC Dallas/Ft. Worth affiliate. I had been providing rainfall measurements to that station and they had a fellow, Jack Helsel, who did local feature stories. Realizing a great many in the area were quite ignorant about the Recluse, Jack and a photographer came to visit and we did the short feature story. I showed how to find them quickly, although the site I picked was well searched and yielded only a small one. I had several hundred in a container with alcohol, so I dumped out a few while the camera was rolling and showed a page or two of the Carolina Biological Supply Company's catalog. It was several weeks later when Jane McGarry introduced Jack's time segment and the broadcast was made to the D/FW Metroplex. Wouldn't you know, when I called Jack some time later, he told me someone from Weatherford had called in to the station exclaiming "That's not a Brown Recluse!" That was a bit upsetting to Jack. Sometimes you can't win.

Please write dates logically: YYYY-MM-DD (HH:MM:SS)
or variations thereof: YYYY Mon DD, YYYY/MM/DD
There is no sense doing otherwise.
rwc@cowaro.com