June 14, 2002 LAWRENCE -- If you happen to come across a brown recluse spider, your first reaction might be to smash it with a rolled-up newspaper.
Jamél Sandidge -- a real life spider man -- would like you to consider a different option.
"Save the spider," said Sandidge, a University of Kansas doctoral student in ecology and evolutionary biology whose research focuses on the brown recluse. "The most important thing to do -- if you do nothing else -- is to get the spider or any part of the spider."
Every summer, brown recluse spiders make their presence known throughout the Midwest, leaving the dark, isolated corners they inhabit during the winter as they actively hunt for food at night.
While the spiders usually don't bite unless provoked, their venom can cause serious problems for pets and people, and in some cases a bite from a brown recluse may prove to be fatal.
That's why Sandidge urges people to save the spiders; it makes it a lot easier for researchers and doctors to diagnose a spider bite if they can view the source.
But even if you do squash the spider, Sandidge can still identify whether it was a brown recluse just by looking at something as small as a single leg. He also can use the remains to further some of the genetic research he conducts on the spiders.
Lately, Sandidge has been swamped with requests to diagnose bites and consult people on spider-proofing their home. He doesn't mind at all, though, because a large part of his research deals with educating the general public about the mysterious brown recluse.
To help get the word out about the spiders, Sandidge and his colleagues created -- what else -- a Web site. The site, which is part of their Community Recluse Project, offers everything from detailed scientific explanations of the spider's population biology to recommendations for the most effective sticky traps to catch spiders in your home.
The site is located at people.ku.edu/~spidermn/reclusecommunity/recluseproject.html.
Sandidge also will deliver a public talk this week in Lawrence. He is scheduled to speak at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Deal Six Auditorium in the Douglas County Extension Office on the Douglas County Fairgrounds. There will be plenty of opportunities to ask Sandidge questions at the talk.
Much like bee stings, Sandidge said, the real danger from brown recluse bites comes from the secondary infections and the allergic -- or systemic -- reactions that some people might have as a result of the bite.
"Bee stings kill a lot of people, but it's not the sting that kills people, it's the allergic reactions that kill people," he said. "A lot of people are allergic to bee stings and they know it. But spiders don't bite very often, so you would never know if you were allergic."
And even though a bee stinger is five times wider than the brown recluse's fangs, the spider bite can cause similar damage, such as severe itching. However, if other symptoms develop, you should seek medical attention immediately.
"The full-body itching is pretty common, but a full-body rash and swelling is not as common," Sandidge said.
Unfortunately, the more questions he gets, the more Sandidge realizes that practically everyone -- from the general public to the medical profession to the pesticide industry -- has received inaccurate information on the brown recluse.
For starters, he said, people waste their time searching for the supposed identifying mark of the brown recluse: a dark brown, inverted violin shape on the spider's body. While many brown recluses have this mark, many others don't, including the juvenile brown recluses.
Other misconceptions can cause serious problems. Medical professionals, Sandidge said, often misdiagnose brown recluse bites. What's worse, even if they correctly identify the bite, they often don't treat it properly.
"One thing I hate is that doctors send people home. They say, 'Oh, you got bit by a brown recluse; go home and wait,'" he said. "When you go home and wait, these systemic problems can happen and then you have to get back to the hospital, and by that time it's too late -- it's there and it has to take its course."
To help prevent health officials from sending people home until further symptoms develop, Sandidge is working with them to ensure they take the most basic steps.
"The first thing I would do is slap an ice pack on it, which slows down the activation of the venom," he said. "Then elevate it (the body part that was bitten) and rest, but you need to see a doctor immediately -- the first 24 hours are pretty critical."
As for people in the pesticide industry, Sandidge said they often use sprays and other chemicals that backfire because the spiders quickly develop a resistance.
Furthermore, he said, he often calls exterminators asking general questions about the spiders only to discover that the workers can't even identify the insect.
Sandidge is working with Thomas Champion, an undergraduate researcher at KU, to determine whether the brown recluse actually prefers the indoor setting of houses over its natural habitat in the outdoors.
There is no popular test to determine whether a person is allergic to a brown recluse, and there is no potent anti-venom to ward off the effects of the spider's bite. That's why Sandidge feels it's so important to help people avoid a brown recluse bite in the first place.
"One of the biggest ways to knock down the numbers is to go on a nightly hunt. Once you've seen one there's obviously others, so get yourself a good flashlight, a good set of gloves, tuck your pants into your socks and start looking," he said. "It's OK if you kill every one you see, but save a few for the spider man."
But just as soon as the words came out of his mouth, Sandidge decided to revise his statement.
"Don't just kill them, find out something about them."
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