Is that a Brown Recluse??

October 16, 2009

Adult Male Jumping Spider Hiding in Leaves - (Habronattus coecatus)
Creative Commons License photo credit: Opo Terser
adorable jumping spider

Poor, poor spiders! People are always saying “I hate spiders,” “I’m arachnophobic,” and “I kill any spiders I see!” Hearing these things just breaks my heart! Spiders are some of the most feared and completely misunderstood creatures in the world. 50% of  women and 10% of men have at least a mild case of arachnophobia, and even more claim that they do. I find that most people will tell me that they have arachnophobia, but after being coaxed to pet my 15 year old tarantula Rosie, they become absolutely fascinated by spiders!

Arachnophobia is a real, irrational fear that can cause panic attacks in people who are afflicted, but most people don’t actually have it! My uncle, for example, claimed to be so afraid of and grossed out by spiders. One day, he noticed a large St.  Andrews Cross spider residing outside of his office window. At first he was repulsed, but after a little research, he found out that it was harmless, beneficial, and actually quite attractive. He then started asking me questions about it and now this self -proclaimed bug-hater is buying lady bug kits for his 5 year old daughter. I’m so proud!

The Business End

Creative Commons License photo credit:

Why do so many people fear spiders? Possibly because it’s learned from our parents, or because of the way they are portrayed in movies and on TV, or maybe it’s just the way they look! Whatever it is, just a little bit of knowledge can go a long way in helping you get over your fear. Probably the most feared spider in the United States is the brown recluse. This poor little spider has found itself caught in the middle of a string of urban myths which have led to the deaths of tons of innocent spiders!

How bad is a brown recluse bite? It can kill you! It will make your body parts fall off! It will scar you for life! False, false, and false! The brown recluse, as evidenced by it’s name, is a very shy and reclusive spider. They are not aggressive and certainly don’t seek out anything to bite that cannot be it’s prey. They have extremely small fangs that cannot bite through clothing. In fact, they have a heck of a time biting unless they are smushed up against your skin. This is often the case when people are actually bitten by these spiders. They roll over onto it in a bed, it gets tangled up in clothing or shoes, whatever it is, they will only bite in response to pressure that they can’t escape from. But don’t be afraid of your bedding, clothes, and shoes all of a sudden! Recluses seek shelter in undisturbed areas, so best to check or wash your guest room bedding before people stay with you, and shake out those shoes or clothes you haven’t worn in years!

Actual brown recluse bites are extremely rare and the large majority of bites heal fine with no need for medical intervention at all. Bites are misdiagnosed all of the time even by medical professionals! There are tons of other conditions that have very similar symptoms to a brown recluse bite, including, but not limited to: Staphylococcus infections, gangrene, herpes, diabetic ulcer, fungal infection, chemical burns, dermatitis, squamous cell carcinoma, vasculitis, syphilis, toxic epidermal necrolysis, sporotrichosis, and lyme disease or other insect bites. Conditions such as these are way more likely to be the culprit if you find yourself with necrosis of the skin.

Approximately 80% of bites are misdiagnosed and can prevent proper treatment of what could be a serious disease. There HAVE been cases reported of significant reactions and even deaths associated with actual brown recluse bites, but usually only with the very young, elderly, or people with a weak immune system. All in all, the chances of you getting a bite and having any severe reaction are extremely slim. The best thing to do is exercise caution when dealing with old linens, shoes, clothing, boxes, and other things that have been undisturbed for quite some time. Other insects and other arachnids such as scorpions can also make homes of these things, so better safe than sorry!

People often think that every spider they see is a brown recluse, because they fear getting close enough to properly identify them.

Here are some tips to help you figure out that the spider you’re looking at is NOT a brown recluse…

– It is in a web: recluses often line their hiding places with an irregular web, but they are active hunters that do not use a web to catch prey. If you see a web outside or even in a corner of your house, there is no brown recluse in it.  House and cellar spiders are commonly seen in your home, but don’t be afraid of them. They are harmless and can actually eat brown recluses. If I have a small web in the corner of my home, I leave it be!

– It is a very large spider: the brown recluse is a medium to small spider, usually about the size of a dime or nickel at the largest. They are not very big at all!

– Brown recluses are not native to your state: They are not found all over the United States. If you live along the west coast, the east coast, or in the far north, you do not have them!

– It has colorful markings or patterns: The brown recluse is just that, brown! Their color can range from very light to darker tan, but they have very few marks. The violin shaped marking on their head can be darker than the rest of their body, or close to the same color and their abdomens have no markings.

– It has 8 eyes: the brown recluse is a sicariid spider meaning it has only 6 eyes. They are arranged in pairs in a specific pattern.

– You are seeing it!: again, they stay hidden during the day and hunt at night. Most people will never see a brown recluse in their lifetime!

spider 006
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
Not a brown recluse!

There are lots of spiders that resemble the brown recluse. Several have markings similar to the violin marking. Many have a similar body shape. Others also have similar eye number and arrangement.

So what is the best way to identify a brown recluse? Practice! We always have one on display here at the Cockrell Butterfly Center, be sure to look at her closely next time you visit. There are several pictures online as well as pictures of spiders that are often mistaken for them.

If you find a suspicious spider in your home, bring it in for an identification, we’d be happy to look at it for you. If we do identify it as a brown recluse, remember not to panic, your home could be overrun with them and you will still probably never be bitten.

I hope I’ve shed some light on this shy little spider. We can all live with spiders, they shouldn’t be feared, but respected. They are largely harmless, shy, beneficial, and some are out of this world gorgeous! So until next time, happy bug watching!

An actual Brown Recluse
Erin M
Authored By Erin M Mills

Erin Mills received her undergraduate degree in Entomology from Texas A&M University in 2004, and after a short tour of the pest control industry, joined HMNS as the Cockrell Butterfly Center's Insect Zoo Manager in 2005. Over the years she expanded the butterfly center's live arthropod collection, developed the ever popular "Bugs on Wheels" outreach program, and continued to establish her role as HMNS's insect expert. In October of 2016, she achieved her long time goal of becoming Director of the Cockrell Butterfly Center. She is constantly striving to improve the butterfly center and how it serves and educates the public about the wonderful and amazing world of insects! As a Board Certified Entomologist, Erin has extensive knowledge of insect identification, ecology, plant relationships, husbandry, really any insect-related topic!

8 responses to “Is that a Brown Recluse??”

  1. Julian says:

    While this article has some useful information, I disagree with the way it handles the perceived severity of brown recluse bites. This is one of a handful of spiders worldwide that possess medically significant venom. Just because the spider is reclusive by nature does not mean bites are extremely unlikely, for the simple fact they are often found in homes throughout the southern US. Their prime habitat is in spots we humans sometimes leave undisturbed for periods, then engage (think cardboard boxes in closets, shoes, open drawers, bed linens, etc). It is often impossible to spot one in a poorly lit space, in a garage, or even crawling across a dark carpet.

    To further complicate the issue, many who are bitten will not even notice the initial bite. As noted in the article, it makes proper identification of the cause difficult, if not impossible (therefore, *statistics are questionable*). There are enough confirmed cases where someone who is bitten by a brown recluse develops the classic weeping ulcer, or necrotic lesion (due to loxoscelism) to warrant proper warning. I have seen this myself, and it often concludes with permanent scarring of the wound. It is best to treat this spider (as well as the Black Widow) with respect and caution, and I feel that should be the primary focus of this article. I am very glad that you often have a specimen of both on display at the Cockrell Butterfly Center, as everyone in the region should be familiar with their appearance. Indeed, there are many beautiful (not to mention useful) spiders in nature, and people should keep an open mind about them (while also exercising caution as needed).

  2. kmd says:

    Granted a bite by a brown recluse may be rare, I have been bitten twice in the past three years. The most recent was the result of sitting at an outdoor picnick table and the second was result of sitting in a boat that had not been used all winter. I am obviously not that lucky when it comes to these little spiders. Both cases, however, were confirmed brown recluse bites. They are very common in my area of the Mississippi Delta and quite a few people find themselves being bit while outdoors or in their older homes or hunting camps. So, as you can tell from my experience, they are not as uncommon as you might think if you live in an area that is a prime habitat for brown recluses. It is best to find out if they are common in your area and be weary of wooden boards with holes in them (like ones on an outdoor picnick table) or boats that have been kept in an old wooden boat house for months with no human contact-I know I will! Be careful and if you show signs of a potential bite see your doctor as soon as possible.

  3. Sean says:

    Erin, Thank You for having the courage to publish the truth regarding a misunderstood species. I live in Florida and hear all the time of someone that has seen or has been bitten by L.reclusa. Despite extensive submission “suspected” samples, there have only been a handful of positively identified specimens in Florida over the past hundred years or so. The mass hysteria associated with this species is perpetrated by doctors that misdiagnose an infection as a recluse bite. It’s unreasonable for anyone to accept such a diagnosis without a specimen. Even with a specimen, counting the eyes are only a preliminary means of identification which later must be augmented by dissection. A medical professional is typically not trained in entomology and is certainly not qualified to identify any species with little more than a skin wound as evidence. There are other species that cause similar wounds and are much more common.

  4. Erin M. says:

    Thank you Sean! I appreciate the comment! I only meant to alleviate some of the “mass hysteria” while still emphasizing the fact that people should exercise caution when dealing with areas associated with the Brown Recluse and its habitat. I’m glad my message came accross to you. Thanks for reading!

  5. vasculitis says:

    My boyfriend has the same issue. Everyday he breaks out in huge hives on his neck and arms and chest. His feet and hands swell a little too. He got blood tests ad allergy tests, and it all came back negative. I’ve spent hours on the computer researching and the best I could come up with was cold hives, but after an experiment, my theory proved wrong. It drives me crazy that I can’t figure it out. I’m determined to discover what it is before the doctors. Shoot me a message and I’ll keep u up to date on my findings.

  6. Erica says:

    Poor, poor spiders? Sorry but I don’t quite see it that way. I was bitten back in 2008 by one and it took months for me to recover. It was horrible…from the bite itself…to the muscle cramps that followed for weeks after …. then there was the rotting flesh after that. I was just minding my business and bam…I was bitten. They are not so innocent and they are not so rare. Actually they are quite common. Also, while they are mostly reclusive…they will absolutely broaden their traveling horizons. If you ever get bitten by one of these, you will no longer think to yourself…poor, poor spiders.

  7. Erin M. says:

    Well Erica, I’m very sorry to hear that you were bitten by a brown recluse, but I still stand by my article 100%. Yes, bites do happen, but the fact is that true bites are more rare than YOU might think. Hearing someone say that they were bitten or that they know someone who has been is not evidence of an actual bite because again, the scientific proof is not there. Bites are, more aften than not, misdiagnosed. There is a huge list of afflictions that can cause very similar symptoms. On top of that, medical professionals are not trained in Entomology. They hardly have the expertise to identify a bite with a specimen let alone without one. I’m not saying now, nor did I in the article, that it doesn’t happen and that’s why I always offer advice on what to look for and where to look. Yes, you should be cautious around all spiders, but just be cautious, not have a “kill them all” attitude. I will always think of spiders the way I do now and I stand by my statement of “poor, poor spiders”, because I am educated about them and I know the true nature of spiders. They have no malice towards humans. Bites happen only when spiders feel they have no other way to defend themselves. You would do the same thing if you were in their position. I certainly hope to never be bitten and have a severe reaction to any kind of spider or insect. But if it happens, I will deal with it the best way I can and move on and it won’t change the way I feel.

  8. glenn says:

    My wife recently found one in an old box out in the garage. We just built our house 1.5 years ago and I’m wondering what the chances are that this little guy came with us. The box was in a storage facility for a couple of months before we moved. I do much of my own pest control and have spent much time over the years learning about how to control pests in and around the home. I’ve always bragged that you would be hard pressed to find ANY type of bug in our home. And then we go and find a BR in our garage. Also, the box was on a shelf at the highest point in the garage. I’ve had sticky traps all over the garage ever since we moved in and the only thing of consequence I’ve ever caught in that 1-5 years was a wolf spider.
    Back to the story…I got the box down for my wife. As she was rummaging through it she noticed a lot of irregular webbing. She just thought it was cobwebs since the box was so old. Then the spider ran up her arm and she immediately flicked it off back into the box. She called me out and after I removed everything from the box I realized what it was. I took a good pic with my cell phone and enlarged it. No doubt about it. I was fascinated and worried at the same time. I’ve seen many Black Widows out in the wild, but I’ve never seen an actual brown recluse until now. As it turns out, the spider did bite my wife, as a small red blister came up on the side of her hand about 24 hours later. After two weeks you can barely see where it was. Hardly any reaction at all.
    I am, however, worried that I have more that might be in my house. After all, what are the chances that it was the ONLY one, even though it was out in the garage. I’m in the process of putting sticky traps all through the attic and the house to see if we do have any. Since it is the hot part of the year, if I don’t find any over a three month period I will fell very relieved.

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