Blake Newton, UK Extension Entomologist
In the news today: the guitarist for heavy-metal band Slayer (a band that became famous in the 1980s for--among other things--pioneering a style of incredibly fast double-bass drumming) has been diagnosed with a form of flesh-eating disease. In news reports (like this one from the Toronto Sun), it has been speculated that the disease was caused by a spider bite.
While it is possible that the wound was caused by a spider bite, it was probably caused by something else. Over the last twenty-years or so, spiders like the brown recluse have gotten a nasty reputation, and they are often blamed for causing necrotic (that is: flesh-eating) wounds. While some studies have shown that these spiders ARE capable of causing such wounds, other, more recent studies show that these spiders probably do not bite people very often, and that necrotic wounds are usually caused by bacterial infections.
You can read more about the myths and misconceptions about the brown recluse and other spiders at Rick Vetter's website at the University of California-Riverside:
I'm going to call Rick the Spider-Myth Slayer. He has been working with brown recluses and other spiders for many years, and he has gathered voluminous evidence (from experiments, surveys, and literature searches) which suggests that brown recluses and other spiders probably don't cause many necrotic wounds. One of the most compelling pieces of evidence: while the brown recluse lives only in the central part of the U.S., brown-recluse bites are diagnosed by physicians all over the U.S.
When I preach about this subject, people often think that I am sticking up for brown recluse spiders. I'm a spider-hugger, right? This is only partially true. Sure--as an entomologist, I like spiders, and I feel bad when they are needlessly killed. But spiders are not the primary causality of the brown-recluse myth. The truth is: within their range, brown recluses can be VERY common. There is no way that people could wipe them out, even if they wanted to. No, I worry about these myths because they can cause people to become very afraid of spiders. They become so scared that they are uncomfortable inside their own homes. I think this is very unfortunate. I'm around these spiders all day, and there are few things that I find less frightening. They are not aggressive, they don't like to be around people, and most scientific evidence indicates that they don't cause many bites, even when they live (sometimes, by the hundreds!) inside homes. I was staying in someone's home in Oklahoma recently. Oklahoma is in the heart of brown-recluse territory. The brown recluses were so common in the home that you could see them on the walls at night (see picture below, taken with my phone camera at about 10pm). It didn't bother me in the slightest. No one in the house has even been bitten by a spider, by the way.
It is important to add that, while I'm not scared of brown recluse spiders, I am cautious around them. When I feed the ones in our lab, I make sure that I never touch them, and that they cannot escape. So if you see them around, keep your distance. And if you have a bunch of them in your home (unlikely in most parts of Kentucky), you may consider contacting a pest-control professional. But what you should not do is become frightened. These spiders are very unlikely to cause a problem.
Back to Jeff Hanneman, the guitarist for Slayer. Whatever caused his illness, I hope that he has a speedy recovery. I also hope that when he recovers, he does not become fearful of brown recluses and other spiders. Fear can kill happiness, but it can't stop wounds, whether they're caused by spider bites, bacterial infections, or head-bangin'!
Read more about Brown Recluse Spiders in our online factsheet.