Holly Schwarting admits that she had to act brave at first.
When she and her fellow Kansas State University researchers would head into a dusty old barn looking for brown recluse spiders to catch, she had the instinctive fear that causes people to recoil at the sight of an arachnid.
“The first few times I had to totally suck it up and fake it because I didn’t want to look like the wimp of the group,” said Schwarting, a research associate at K-State. “But after working with them a few times I saw they weren’t aggressive.”
This is the time of the year when brown recluse spiders come to life in houses.
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This is the time of the year when brown recluses come to life in houses and other buildings around most of the state. They usually go dormant in October until their prey food sources, mainly insects and other spiders, become plentiful once again in the spring.
Schwarting, along with grad student JR Ewing, have caught hundreds of brown recluses for research into how different types of prey affect the spiders over the long term. Far from being aggressive, the spiders have been found to be true to their reclusive name.
“We’ve never had one come after us,” Schwarting said. “Think about the size of the spider and the size of us. Their first reaction is to get away. If you see a giant, are you going to try to smash his foot or run away?”
Neither Schwarting nor Ewing nor any undergrad pressed into service to feed the spiders has ever been bitten, said Jeff Whitworth, an associate professor in the entomology department.
“The only times they act like they’re in a defensive posture is when they can’t do anything else – you’ve got them really, really pinned” – say, between your arm and your shirt sleeve, or in your shoe, Whitworth said. “Otherwise they prefer to run or hide. They’ve been on Holly’s arm or people’s leg, but they don’t bite.”
People just don’t get bit that often for as common as they are.
K-State professor Jeff Whitworth
This is good news because they’re probably in every house in Kansas except in the northwest corner of the state, Whitworth said. “People just don’t get bit that often for as common as they are.”
In the unlikely event that a person is bitten by a brown recluse, the reaction depends on the body’s sensitivity to the venom. Only one death has ever been directly attributed to a brown-recluse bite, but even then, other health factors were involved, according to K-State.
Still, it does pay to follow basic sanitation as well as these housekeeping practices to avoid any close encounters: don’t leave clothes on the floor; avoid stockpiling paper, boxes and cardboard; and keep bedclothes from touching the floor. These are places spiders could crawl on or into.
In addition, close up openings, even the tiniest, that would let spiders get into the house. Use caulk, and be sure that weather stripping is intact, K-State advises.
They like warm, cluttered areas. We go through barns full of old furniture. … We always find them.
Holly Schwarting, K-State research associate
When the researchers go out looking for the spiders, they go to “old abandoned homes and barns and outbuildings,” Schwarting said. “They like warm, cluttered areas. We go through barns full of old furniture. … We always find them.”
Before he started his spider research, whenever Ewing would find a spider in his house, he’d flush or otherwise dispose of it. Now he would never exterminate them.
“We collect them, and that’s one thing my family has learned. We catch them, we collect them in a cup, and we release them outside.”
What spiders do go after aggressively are insects that you might otherwise want to exterminate.
But for people who have lots of spiders in their house or who can’t tolerate even one, methods of getting rid of them are not super efficient.
A pesticide that has “brown recluse spider” on the label will kill the spiders only if it is sprayed directly on them, or if the spiders come into contact with it while it is still damp, according to K-State. Pesticides are even less effective on carpet.
Some pest control companies go after the spiders’ food source with an insecticide; that way when the spider feeds on the poisoned prey, it also dies.
Sticky traps can help monitor spider activity but won’t eliminate the spiders, Whitworth said. Plus “they’re not real humane, I guess,” he said.
Where would Halloween be without them?
JR Ewing, K-state student
One fun fact: If you find a spider in your bathtub or sink, it didn’t crawl up the drain; it either came from the overflow drain or fell in and couldn’t get out.
“Generally spiders are beneficial because they’re predators in general,” Ewing said. “Where would Halloween be without them?”
To reduce the chances of a spider encounter:
▪ Caulk even the tiniest openings into the house
▪ Be sure weather stripping is intact
▪ Don’t leave clothes on the floor
▪ Avoid stockpiling paper, boxes and cardboard
▪ Keep bedclothes from touching the floor