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Rare as such cases may be, Tennessee residents will almost inevitably go to bed in the same room as a brown recluse at some point in their lives. For those who live in fear of the arachnids, becoming that million-to-one exception is just a floor-touching bed sheet or unpacked sweater away. They turn to pest-control pros like Andrew Douglas.
Douglas is director of operations at Belle Meade Exterminating, where business booms come summertime, when spiders and other pests come out in full force. Yet even he feels the demand for his recluse-killing prowess is overblown.
"I'm afraid the media in general has made the brown recluse situation to be much more high-profile and dangerous than the facts prove out," he tells the Scene, explaining why one of the most in-demand pest control treatments is, more often than not, unnecessary.
"I really don't like to do a brown recluse treatment on a home or business until we've proven to both ourselves and the customer that yes, we've got a significant infestation that needs to be addressed," Douglas says. "[But some customers] just absolutely, if they see one spider, any kind of spider, that's just it — they're going to do something."
The exterminator entertains a constant stream of customers who email him pictures or physically bring him specimens they've captured or killed and believe could be brown recluses. "Only about one out of four spiders that we are asked about is actually a brown recluse," he says. The other 75 percent are typically harmless brown house spiders, like the cob spider or the aggressive-looking-but-ultimately-harmless wolf spider.
Douglas says that in roughly half the cases where his company doesn't discover an infestation, customers still pony up extra Benjamins for a full-scale brown recluse treatment. Because the spider hides in such hard-to-reach spaces, he says the remedy is much more product- and labor-intensive, and costs hundreds of dollars more than the industry standard general pest control treatment that he suggests. Douglas says his spider clientele ranges from single-bedroom apartment dwellers to millionaires in 10,000-square-foot mansions.
"I think the fears, rational or irrational, correspond across the whole [social and economic spectrum]," he says. "It's more a lack of information than anything."
Like other reputable companies, Douglas doesn't use that fear factor to gouge customers. But some shady pest-chasers do. "Our industry is no different than any other," Douglas says of his profession's opportunists, noting that in his 16 years of shimmying through crawl spaces, working under baseboards, reaching between walls and climbing into attics as an exterminator, he's never been bitten by a black widow or brown recluse. Neither have any of Belle Meade Exterminating's employees.
"Of the thousands and thousands of customers and homes that we've dealt with over the years, yes, we've had a sprinkling of customers that either they've got bitten or been diagnosed as having a recluse bite," Douglas says, "but I'm gonna say [it's] far less than 1 percent — probably a fraction of 1 percent."
Of course, brown recluses are hardly Tennessee's only poisonous spider. There's the notorious black widow — also affectionately known as the "shoe button" spider, or the "hourglass" spider, for the alarming red hourglass marking on its back. While you'll find brown recluses hiding inside your house, behind book shelves or in old boxes, the unmistakable black widow, with its menacing bulbous body, jagged hook-like legs and pre-dawn-dark coloration, tends to hide in plain sight.
It nestles in the nooks and crannies around the outside of the house, wedged in woodpiles, webbed around your water meter, in flower pots, gardens and garages. And it's got a venomous bite to rival the recluse's — a neurotoxin that causes a condition called latrodectism. Symptoms include severe pain, rash, lesions, muscle cramps, nausea, erratic heartbeat, hypertension, hyperventilation and in the rarest of cases, comas or renal failure — or, in the past, death.
"Before antivenom was available, bites from these spiders caused death in about 5 percent of the cases," Richard Vetter concluded in his 2002 study. "Currently there are adequate medical treatments; deaths from black widow bites are virtually nonexistent."
As with the brown recluse, black widow bite symptoms also pose a more serious threat to small children, due to smaller body size. Thankfully, black widows are relatively rare in Tennessee.
"We see a ton more brown recluse bites than black widow bites each year," Seger says. "[Black widows] aren't aggressive, but if they're on you, they're going to bite you."
Andrew Douglas advises that if you see any potentially poisonous spider crawling on you, gently blow or rake it off. Don't instinctually swat and squish it like you would a mosquito.
"The fangs are pointed down and you just basically gave yourself a hypodermic shot," he says. That's essentially what local musician Benjamin Harper did when he was bitten in bed in Hermitage a few years back.
"The [ER doctor] told me only a small percentage of bites actually cause the necrosis of the skin and put me on an antibiotic," Harper recalls. "Luckily, the bite didn't develop that infection. The only scar I have is the memory of that disgusting arachnid crawling on me. And the sensation of squishing it in my fingers."
In the corner of entomologist professor Frank Hale's shoebox-sized office at the University of Tennessee Soil, Plant and Pest Center in Nashville, a dead brown recluse withers away among myriad other departed bugs and spiders in a foot-long yellow sticky trap between the door and filing cabinet. The sight suggests that a live one — hell, maybe dozens of live ones — could be hiding in the shadow behind the book shelves or under his desk.
But Hale looks unfazed by the prospect. As an expert, he knows the likelihood of losing a hand to a recluse bite is too remote to lose sleep over. "We'll maybe try to battle them," he deadpans. "I know there is some brown recluse probably in the room."
For now, though, he's got bigger bugs to squash. Certainly, he's concerned with the human health risks posed by mosquitoes, ticks, bedbugs (an increasingly prolific pest in these parts) and bees. (The last, unsurprisingly, he considers the deadliest pest in Tennessee — anaphylactic shock from a bee sting or multiple bee stings from an unsettled hive can quickly prove fatal for anyone who's allergic to bees, wasps, hornets, etc., though it's rare.)
But while so many Tennesseans worry themselves sick over spiders, he says, they're ignoring the real threat in their midst: invasive crop-killing pests like Japanese beetles and imported fire ants (which can also be deadly to humans), which migrate overseas via imported goods and hitchhike on landscaping vehicles to Tennessee. These invading hordes besiege farms and hit every state resident where it really hurts — the pocketbook.
"We spend billions of dollars trying to deal with invasive pests," he tells the Scene. "It's a bigger problem year in year out. ... It's costing our farmers, and folks, money every single day." As a result, consumers shoulder the burden of ravaged crops and expensive pesticides by spending thousands of dollars over their lifetimes paying rising food costs.
No less destructive are pests like the emerald ash borer, which Tennessee Department of Agriculture spokesman Tom Womack says can decimate the state's ash trees, or the gypsy moth, which can denude an entire forest with a single infestation. These too wreak economic, ecological and environmental havoc on the state's forests.
These and other changes in Tennessee's ecosystem are busying medical entomologist Abelardo Moncayo, director of the Vector-Borne Diseases Program at the Tennessee Department of Health. He tracks the proliferation of ailments such as the mosquito-borne West Nile virus and the tick-borne rickets-like illness Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.
"Last year was a big year for probably most of the vector-borne diseases in the state," Moncayo tells the Scene. "We think it's because we had a mild winter and an early spring. ... I would say it's part of climate change. If we do experience more mild winters like that, early springs, then we would continue to have big outbreaks every year." That's because a mild winter doesn't kill off as many pests, causing the population to grow and virus carriers to proliferate. This applies to spiders as well.
"People have to strike a balance with how much they worry about [these pests]," Moncayo says. "You don't want to be completely unworried about it ... but you don't want to be overworried about it."
More worrisome, perhaps, to Moncayo and Hale is a somewhat inscrutable illness called delusional parasitosis syndrome. It's when people suffer from a psychotic delusion that bugs are crawling on them, biting them and infecting them. Sufferers face painful physical consequences, such as developing infections from scratching themselves until they bleed.
"When someone starts talking about bugs, doesn't it make you want to scratch yourself?" Hale muses.
"That becomes a condition where it's beyond a consultation to an entomologist," Moncayo adds. "It's something you have to get counseling for. ... I've had people send me things where they're like, 'Can you take a look at this?' And they put it in a slide, and it's pieces that they've taken off of themselves, and you look at it under a microscope and it's definitely not [tissue damage from] an arthropod of any sort. And you gently have to suggest to them that maybe, you know, first of all see a physician, and hopefully that physician will refer them to some sort of counseling service.
"I think saying, 'Hey, don't freak out,' is a message that those people should hear. But you know, that's one extreme."
Caution is healthy in dealing with any kind of poisonous insect, especially one with as infamous a legacy as the brown recluse spider. But so is a cool head and a sense of proportion about the many species that share our living spaces, seen and unseen.
"If you're outside in the yard, there's literally hundreds of thousands of spiders in the grass," Frank Hale stresses. "About anywhere you go on earth, it's rich, teeming with life. We are definitely on the living planet; you better learn to like the creatures, because this planet is chock-full of them."
• Brown recluse spiders are not aggressive but live in warm, dark spaces where they are frequently unseen — in old shoes, storage areas, closets, etc.
• If you see a spider on you, do not swat it — its fangs point downward, and that will only drive them into your skin. Try blowing or gently raking it off.
• If you are bitten, wash the bite and the surrounding area, keep it dry, and seek medical attention. Do not rub the bite area with lotions, ointments, home remedies, etc., unless instructed by a medical professional.
• Also, if you are bitten, capture the spider if possible to show doctors. This will help identify the kind of bite and venom, aiding treatment.
• If you have caught a spider and want verification whether it's a brown recluse, you can send the arachnid to the University of Tennessee Soil, Plant and Pest Center, 5201 Marchant Drive, Nashville, TN 37211-5112 — but only after you click on soilplantandpest.utk.edu for proper mailing instructions, paperwork and fees.
• Don't panic. The majority of spider-bite victims will not develop the "flesh-eating" effects shown in those scary Internet photos.
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