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September 13, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Inside a vacant home in Columbia, Bryan Ninichuck used a stick to peel back insulation and uncovered several brown recluses among the hundreds in the house. The spiders were lined up every two feet on the floor boards, and he feared spiders would fall from the ceiling. The owner of Wingate Pest Control, Ninichuck treats houses for brown recluse infestations every year, but this summer was one of the worst he has experienced.
As if the unyielding heat and extreme drought weren’t enough, Mother Nature pestered Columbians with a swarm of spiders. The normally anti-social brown recluses crept out of floor boards and scurried from attics to infest homes throughout mid-Missouri.
It’s not curiosity that drives the spider out of hiding. When brown recluses decide to slink into the daylight, it is usually because their favorite hangouts are packed full of other spiders, Ninichuck says. One or two brown recluses out in the open could mean hundreds of spiders are already lurking behind walls, in basements or in dark nooks and crannies. They’re hidden, but they’re there.
A spider infestation might sound like ghost-story fodder, but Liz Biegalski has lived it. She had brown recluses scamper out of the darkness this summer and had to have her house sprayed. One of the critters even came crawling out from under her pillow. “We were all freaking out,” Biegalski says of her and her roommates. “I needed to shake out my bed and shake out everything in my room.” Weeks later, she still shakes out her clothes before wearing them.
Spider sightings are consistent with Missouri summers. In fact, Columbia falls into a region that is often considered the brown recluse capital of the U.S., says Richard Houseman, an associate professor of entomology at MU.
Although Houseman says there is no data linking high temperatures to an increase in the number of spiders, other bug experts say there could be a link between June and July’s sweltering summer heat and the apparent spike in arachnid activity. “The brown recluse thrives in heat,” Ninichuck says. “They’ve got the humidity; they’ve got the heat; they’ve got the food source, so they’re having a really great time.”
Arachnophobes might think of a brown recluse as a fanged, bloodthirsty predator, but the opposite is true. “It’s a rare incident when a brown recluse bites someone,” Houseman says.
The creepy crawler can still manage to land a bite. Brown recluse venom is a hemotoxin that affects tissues directly, Houseman says. If a person has a reaction to a brown recluse bite, the result is most commonly a canker about the size of a pencil eraser. These sores often heal on their own but usually require a course of antibiotics to prevent infection. Always seek medical attention if bitten.
If your spidey senses begin to tingle and you encounter a couple of the eight-legged creatures, don’t fret. The cautious spiders usually cause humans little disturbance. “The way that they behave is to try to avoid us,” Houseman says. “Sometimes the reputation of the brown recluse far exceeds the risk.”