Years ago I wrote an article for the paper about so-called “Hobo spiders” after one of my sons popped up with another serious bite on one thigh (serious enough to go on antibiotics due to blistering at the center of the bite).
Since the kids never had systemic issues with the bites they had, we knew they weren’t black widows–even though widows are plentiful out here and it’s common to find them lounging in the bathroom (a favorite hangout seems to be the toilet paper holder for some reason–you have to wonder if they get their jollies finding new ways to generate human screams). I’ve also noticed a disturbing trend for widows to nest in exactly the same spots year after year–I do kill them, so I know that these are next-gen spiders, but they are so particular about where they nest that it’s almost uncanny. Every fall I check the same spots in the garage, and year after year, there will be fat black widows there.
I am one of those people that usually can’t be bothered to wear gardening gloves, but every time I have to get something from our shed and see two or three widows, I tend to wear gloves the next few days. I’m not afraid of snakes or mice or bats–or even wasps, thanks to my immersion therapy out here in the desert–but I have to admit my pulse rate goes way up whenever I see a big spider or a black widow. Don’t even like looking at pictures of spiders, really.
One of the problems with widow bites is you can only be treated with the antivenin once–so people who like to garden often opt to suffer through the pain if they get bit. Remembering that factoid never helps, either.
Anyway, since we could clearly see the fang marks in the center of the bites on the kids, our PA figured they had to be a from a large spider. He couldn’t tell me what was biting the boys, though, and really didn’t feel it was all that important. (Once he said, “Lisa, you wouldn’t do well in medical school–you always want to know why things happen. Doctors don’t care so much about why.”)
I couldn’t figure out why all three of the boys kept getting bit when my husband and I never had a single bite, and none of the other moms in the area I talked to had ever had this problem either. The boys never knew they had been bit until they developed softball-sized swellings on their legs, so we had no idea where the bites were happening. In the grass? The sandbox? In bed?
So I decided to do some research.
I read articles online–always a dangerous prospect–and immediately found several articles about hobo spiders. Since they were the only other large spider in the NW that was said to inflict a dangerous bite, I figured I’d found my answer.
The photos of hobos looked suspiciously like other spiders I’ve often found in our bathtub or sinks, and I read about people in Spokane who used glue traps in an effort to minimize bites, so I bought some of those. The only thing we ever managed to catch with those were mice (and, on one memorable occasion, my oldest son AND a dead mouse at the same time).
After my article on hobo spiders came out in the paper, and after my glue traps didn’t work, another one of the boys popped up with a bite. In desperation I tracked down an entomologist in California who laughed at me and my “research.” After I pointed out one of the articles I’d read was printed in the Spokesman Review, he asked, “And which entomologist did they talk to for that story?”
He was the one who told me that some people happen to have allergic reactions to spider venom that’s harmless to other folks. He said researchers were still trying to figure out what was going on with some of the necrotic bites that people were developing in the Northwest.
After more bites, and trial and error, we figured out if we could slap a soda paste on one of the kids’ bites right away that we drastically minimized the swelling and resultant trip to the doctor’s office. So I started to be a little less frantic when someone popped up with a bite.
And then–finally–when the twins were eight years old, one of them actually felt a bite as it happened while he was sitting on the couch. We found the spider (the semi-crushed spider, actually). Talk about your anticlimactic moments. The culprit is a small brown jumping spider with short legs, a flat body, and a faint herringbone pattern on the abdomen. (This is the closest photo I could find–ours out here in central WA ours have shorter legs and fainter markings). I’d seen these guys all over, of course, but I’d assumed they were completely harmless little critters. When compared to some of the huge, hairy-legged desert spiders we see out here all the time, these were the last spiders I would’ve suspected.
After finding out which spiders the boys were allergic to, I killed every one I saw–in the house or out. Nobody has had a bite for a long time, although I still find these guys around doorways and windowsills occasionally.
So why were the bite marks so misleading? My theory is that the considerable blistering and swelling at the center of the bites enlarged the fang holes until they looked like something out of True Blood rather than the tiny puncture wounds that the spider initially inflicts. The bites were always worse if the boys had been bitten on the fatty part of the upper thigh rather than the lower leg, probably because circulation is better on the lower leg (even mosquito bites on the upper thigh will often swell more than other places). Naturally the boys were bitten more on the thigh because that area is more likely to come into contact with a spider when you’re sitting down.
That was one of my first lessons as a journalist. Even if you’re desperate for answers, you can’t believe everything you read–especially if it’s on the internet. I promised myself that I’d always go the extra mile if I was writing about something I didn’t fully understand. No, I may not be able to figure out why everything happens, but I figure there’s nothing wrong with trying.