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INTRIGUING SPIDERS ARE USUALLY HARMLESS, BUT BEWARE OF THE BITE OF BROWN RECLUSE

Most people don't like spiders.

Why? Obviously, they distrust snakes because they can move about easily without any legs.

By the same token, spiders may seem weird and frightening only because they have four pairs of legs -- eight altogether.

Some people probably have looked askance at all spiders since earliest childhood, when somebody read them that dreadful tale about Little Miss Muffet's ordeal when she sat down to eat some curds and whey. I think Miss Muffet's own fright inspired children ever afterward to scream and run away from spiders seated next to them.

Somehow, as a small boy, I managed to avoid all that hysteria, and I have a fond remembrance of the beautiful golden garden spider I once kept in a big jar as a pet. It was fascinating to watch it weave its intricate web. Then I would sit and admire its coloring while it assumed a typical, inverted stance in the center of that orb, patiently waiting for an insect to become ensnared.

It usually didn't have to wait very long, as I would find a grasshopper and drop it into the jar. How remarkably fast that garden spider would go to work wrapping silk around its victim, as if turning this bundle on a lathe -- food storage for a later meal.

Approximately 120,000 different kinds of spiders can be found on Earth. Of these, nearly 3,000 species are in the United States and Canada.

Actually, only two can inflict a serious bite: the infamous black widow spider (Latrodectus mactans) and the rather obscure little brown recluse (Loxosceles reclusa).

When I once lived in Texas, where the black widows are abundant, I must confess that I worried about brushing against these when I first discovered them in a field. Soon I learned that such spiders are very timid and rarely have bitten people.

Within a short time, I ignored all those black widows, realizing that poisonous spiders would rather save their venom for a grasshopper than use it on the next naturalist strolling by.

Of course, the black widow spiders still are confined to the Southwest and still are not bothering people.

On the other hand, the nasty brown recluse recently has invaded certain parts of the Northeast, having originated as a shy native of Arkansas.

There it sought the seclusion of a dark cave or hid in a crevice among the rocks -- hence the name "recluse."

I always told Janice and our friends that Western New York was free of all poisonous spiders. At that time, the nearest brown recluse had been reported somewhere on the other side of Cleveland -- never a threat in Erie County.

Recently, however, I have learned that three Western New Yorkers actually have been treated for the severely painful consequences of being bitten by the extremely rare brown recluse.

Dr. John M. Hodson, whose wife, Mary, was bitten two years ago, has sent me a great amount of literature describing the ghastly effects and treatment of those suffering from the bite of a brown recluse. Evidently, the bite may be received while rummaging in a dark storage closet or carrying old furniture from a rummage sale.

The recluse, no bigger than a pea, can be hiding in the folds of a blanket or in the damp recesses of a basement.

The bite itself is seldom felt or even noticed for several hours. Then, by the second day, a blackening rash accompanied by excruciating pain develops rapidly, with typical symptoms including high fever, nausea and the eruption of a large, open gangrenous ulcer.

Treatment involves intense medication and steroids, and sometimes necessitates a skin graft.

Mrs. Hodson showed conclusive evidence that she was bitten by a brown recluse, and she still carries that open hole in her leg as a reminder of her dreadful ordeal.

In presenting this account, I must reiterate that most spiders are harmless, but it's a good idea to look for the clear, distinguishing mark of a violin on the back of a small spider.

Only the brown recluse carries that violin. The best way to avoid one is through thorough house-cleaning.

Because last Saturday's group walk produced a great many warblers and vireos, and closed with an excellent look at a scarlet tanager, I have scheduled another outing this Saturday, when we also shall expect to find most ferns fully open.

I also have been happy to see more than 200 pink lady's slippers getting ready to bloom here at Timber Trails. If you wish to join me on this next interpretive walk, call 337-3590 for reservations.

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