2013: Year of the Spider

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The year 2013 should be designated “The Year of the Spider” – at least it should be in Alabama.

Several people, including me, have noticed more spiders and their webs this year in these parts than they’ve seen in years past. I queried Auburn’s eminent spider specialist, Dr. Jason Bond, about the apparent abundance of spiders, especially orb-weavers, this year. Dr. Bond believes the abundance is due primarily to rainy weather we’ve experienced.

“With all the rain, everything is REALLY green, lots of insects thus lots of prey items to go around for everything, including spiders,” Dr. Bond said. Dr. Bond is the biologist who described a new species of trapdoor spider, to which he applied the common epithet, Auburn Tiger Trapdoor Spider, which was discovered in an Auburn subdivision.

Orb-weavers are the spiders that construct elaborate, symmetrical, bicycle wheel-shaped webs. One, the golden orb-weaver, constructed its strong yellow web next to my deck. It’s one I’d never seen before.

Dr. Debbie Folkerts told me the species has become increasingly common. I’ve yet to see the large, yellow and black, golden garden spiders this year. Unlike most others, this orb-weaver usually spins its web close to the ground. Orb-weavers are not aggressive and bite only when crushed. The bites may produce a minor stinging sensation and may cause itching.

The robust hairy, ground-dwelling spider that occasionally enters houses is the wolf spider. They are hunters and do not spin webs. When I see one in the house, I capture it gently, using a paper napkin, and release it outdoors unharmed, because wolf spiders are beneficial.

Three spiders harmful to humans occur in Alabama. They are the black widow, the brown widow, and the brown recluse.

The black widow’s bite can be serious, and the bitten individual should immediately seek medical attention. Since indoor toilet facilities have become the norm, black widow bites have rarely occurred.

Brown widows, like black widows, tend to inhabit dark secluded places, such as rock piles, wood piles and underground recesses. They are brown and yellow mottled with streaks of black and have a yellow or reddish mark on their undersides. They are natives of Africa and South America, became established in Florida years ago and have since spread across the southern states from South Carolina to southern California.

Their bites are seldom serious and rarely require hospitalization.

The brown recluse is also called fiddleback spider, brown fiddler, or violin spider because of a violin-shaped figure on its back. Preferred habitats are dark dry places. They have been found in garages, barns, basements, closets and abandoned houses, especially in or around cardboard boxes and under cardboard scraps.

They are rarely aggressive and bite only when mashed or pressed against the skin, such as may occur when putting on clothes that have not been recently worn and are left lying on the floor.

Bites are rare even where the spiders occur in considerable numbers. In 2011 more than 2,000 brown recluses were removed from a house in Kansas where four people had lived for a number of years without being bitten.

Initially, the bite may go unnoticed, and if it is, is not particularly painful. But the consequences may be serious. In some cases, necrosis, or killing, of the tissue in the vicinity of the bite can be severe and take months to heal. The wound may ultimately grow as large as ten inches in diameter and become gangrenous.

Systemic effects occur in some patients, causing nausea, vomiting, fever, joint and muscle pains, and, rarely, organ failure and death. Most fatalities occur in children under seven and in people with weakened immune systems.

Antivenin is available to treat black widow spider bites but is not available against brown recluse venom. Treatment for the latter involves placement of ice packs at the site of the bite, elevation if the bite occurred on the hand, arm, or leg, and, in some cases, antibiotics and medications for pain relief.

Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Dept of Zoology and Entomology, Auburn University. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.

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