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It’s the time of year to take a moment to enjoy the beautiful autumn colors, but if you’re going to slip on an old pair of shoes you left on the porch before heading outside to admire your colorful trees, you’d better not – you could end up dead or scarred, experts said.
That’s because along with an abundance of beautiful fall foliage, the spider population has really exploded this year, and two extremely poisonous varieties could be lurking in unlikely places.
“The black widows, they are out there, but you’re more likely to get bitten by a brown recluse, because they like to hide in things like an old boot, or something that hasn’t been worn for a while,” said Walt Reichert, Shelby County Extension horticulture technician.
Reichert said that although he doesn’t think the county is being plagued by an infestation of these potentially lethal creepy crawlies, there are enough of them out there this year to merit being extra careful.
“Because the winter was very mild, I think there are just more insects of all kinds out there, including spiders, although they are technically not insects,” he said. “I don’t know if I would characterize it as an infestation, but we have had a lot of calls, so there are a lot more of them than usual, even in my own house.”
Kenneth Yeargan, an entomology professor at the University of Kentucky specializing in spiders, shared Reichert’s opinion that both types of spiders are more abundant this year in Kentucky.
“We have a good number of them each year pretty consistently, especially this year,” he said. “They’re here, and they’re abundant, but from my own indications, there have been a good number of reports of people seeing them this year.”
The black widow spider and the brown recluse are two of the most poisonous spiders in the United States. They are found predominately in the southern part of the country and are common in Kentucky.
The female black widow spider has shiny black bodies with bright red markings; the male has white markings. But the male is not known to bite humans. The University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service lists the black widow as belonging to the cobweb spider family. The black widow's name is derived from the fact that the female usually eats the male after mating.
The brown recluse is tan to dark brown in color and is characterized by a violin shape on its body; hence it is sometimes called a fiddler spider.
Which one’s bite is more dangerous?
‘They are both very poisonous, but I think the brown recluse is worse, because it rots away your skin,” Reichert said. “The black widow would be more likely to kill you, but the brown recluse can leave a nasty, ugly wound.”
The black widow
Yeargan explained why the black widow is more life threatening.
“In my opinion, the black widow’s bite is more dangerous, because of its neurotoxic effects on the nervous system,” he said, explaining that its venom can affect the heart and nervous system, causing chest pain, respiratory difficulty, tremors, abdominal pain, severe muscle cramps, fainting, and vomiting.
The bite is characterized by two small, bloody fang marks. Symptoms start within minutes, with redness and swelling at the bite site following.
“People that are very young or very old are most likely to die, but the average healthy person will usually survive,” Yeargan said. “The latest mortality rate study I know of put the mortality rate from a black widow bite at less than four percent.”
On the other hand, Yeargan said, the brown recluse bite is more painful and long lasting.
“The problem with brown recluse bites is that you often get weeks of after effects and some flesh in the area of the bite is going to die, leaving bad scarring and causing secondary infections,” he said.
Instead of attacking the nervous system, brown recluse venom is toxic to cells and tissue, actually dissolving the tissue at the site of the bite. The bite often goes unnoticed because it is fairly painless. Symptoms begin within 2 to 8 hours, and include severe pain at the bite site, nausea, fever, severe itching, vomiting and muscle pain. The bite site is dark and discolored because of tissue death. In some cases, the toxin will eat completely through the skin and into the subcutaneous tissue, resulting in severe, deep lesions that can result in severe scarring and may even require skin grafting.
Yeargan said people should watch out for black widows outdoors and brown recluses indoors.
“Black widows are mostly outdoor spiders, although they do like to get up against houses, but they rarely set up populations indoors,” he said. “The brown recluse, on the other hand, tends to be found indoors.”
Reichert said he had a Shelbyville resident call him about black widows at his residence.
“This guy called and said he had black widow spiders everywhere,” he said. “And I thought, surely not. I asked him to bring it in, and he did, and sure enough, it was. He must have had dozens of them around his place. And he wasn’t even out in the county. He did have a big woodpile, though, and spiders like that.”
Charles Bates, who lives on Fox Run Road, is the spider expert in his neighborhood, because of his background in entomology in college, he said.
“A lot of people will bring me spiders that they think are black widows or brown recluses, but they usually aren’t,” he said. “They are just old field spiders.”
Bates said he has seen a few black widows in his barn and in his woodpile.
“It’s not uncommon to see them there; they like to hide in wood,” he said.
Bates said the most unusual infestation he ever heard of was at the Fairdale Post Office in Jefferson County that had to close from April to August this year because of a brown recluse infestation.
“People in that area were really upset about that, including my cousin,” he said with a chuckle. “She was all fired up because she had to use another post office farther away. But that was just really odd. They just couldn’t get rid of all those spiders.”
Although spiders do not usually hide in leaves, except for the Leaf Curling Spider found in Australia, and to a lesser extent in the United States, they are more likely to turn up in leaves that have settled in places below ground level, like basement window ledges, said John Lewis of Bagdad, owner of Johnny’s Lawn Service.
“Not only might there be spiders, but also snakes, and even mice,” he said.
But if you are just out for a stroll to check out the brilliant gold, red and russet shades of fall foliage, other than keeping an eye out for spider webs, you can just concentrate on admiring the amazing hues of autumn.
In Shelby County, Reichert said the most common trees are the ash, red and white oaks, black walnut, hackberry and black cherry, in that order.
Many of these put on dazzling displays of colors in autumn, he said.
“I don’t think there’s anything prettier than the ash tree; it’s purple on top and yellow underneath,” he said. “Another really beautiful tree is the ginkgo. It hasn’t turned yet. It turns a real buttery yellow. It has a fan shaped leaf, and it’s an old tree, it was even around at the time of the dinosaurs. There used to be one down by the courthouse and there are some at Shelby County High School.”
Reichert said the Kentucky state tree, the Tulip Poplar, is not very common in Shelby County, although there are some around.
“They are sort of related to a Magnolia; they have little white blooms on them in March, and they grow straight as an arrow,” he said. “Their leaves are yellow in the fall, but I think most of them have already turned.”
Reichert said a lot of the trees turned a little earlier than usual because of the dry weather. “The leaves were just ragged looking all summer, but that hasn’t affected their fall colors,” he said.
That’s because most of the big trees have very deep roots and it takes a whole lot of drought to affect them, he said.
“They are all just beautiful this year, all over the county,” he said. “A lot of the ones you’re seeing up and down Main Street are ash, the purplish yellow, and if you go around on Washington Street, you will see some red maples by the bridge, they are just a brilliant red right now. Sugar maples are pretty common, too, and they are a bright yellow.”