When diving into the sheds, crawl spaces and other areas that haven’t been touched since the summer, spring cleaners should be wary of the critters that may have moved in in their absence.
Some Hamptons residents have learned that the hard way.
Theresa Quinn of Bridgehampton was working at a private home about three years ago when she got her lesson. She was retrieving pool toys from a moldy, dusty old shed, she explained in a recent interview. “This shed hadn’t been touched in years,” she said. While pulling the toys out, Ms. Quinn believes she must have disturbed something, because she ended up in the hospital soon after with a bite mark, feeling freezing cold and “ready to explode.”
“It was just nasty,” she said of the bite mark on her upper thigh. “I couldn’t even describe what it looked it.”
The mark, which changed colors rapidly, was diagnosed as a spider bite.
Though Ms. Quinn doesn’t remember being bit, or even seeing a spider, she traced the bite back to the shed.
“Being the Google-freak that I am, I Googled every little spider on the planet,” she said. The Internet search engine pointed her in the direction of the brown recluse spider, an arachnid that is reportedly native to the central Midwestern states southward to the Gulf of Mexico. The spiders prefer dark, undisturbed sites, where they spin irregular, off-white to grayish webs to retreat to during the day. At night, brown recluses roam for insects to prey on.
Brown recluses are also know as fiddleback or violin spiders, because of a violin shaped mark on their backs. The spiders, which have a leg span the size of a quarter, are light tan to dark brown, with segmented legs covered with fine hairs. Most spiders have eight eyes, but brown recluses are distinguishable because they only have six.
Ms. Quinn said her symptoms fit the bill of a brown recluse’s bite, the nastiest symptom being necrosis, the localized death of tissue.
“You cannot believe the photographs I came upon,” she said of what turned up during her internet search for necrosis.
She was put on a regiment of antibiotics and other care, but if left untreated, necrosis can cause irreparable tissue damage.
Gina Constantino of Water Mill recalled her husband’s severe reaction to a spider bite about 15 years ago.
“After working in a crawl space, he got in his car … and he noticed bad pain in his underarm area,” she said. At first, it looked like a severe whitehead, Ms. Constantino explained, but the symptoms continued to get worse.
“His whole arm and chest got fire-engine red,” she said.
Her husband, Nicholas, saw a doctor, who identified the wound as a spider bite and sent him home. It ran its course and went away, but only after a couple weeks of being very ill, she said.
Ms. Constantino researched her husband’s symptoms online and surmised that it must have been a brown recluse bite.
“It seemed very few spiders would cause the kind of damage to the flesh and body symptoms [he had],” she said.
About a dozen years ago, Bob Schneider, the former principal of Pierson High School in Sag Harbor, suffered similarly. Shortly before leaving for an education conference at Lake George, Mr. Schneider was bringing firewood inside his house from a woodpile. He felt a little tickle on his wrist, but didn’t pay any attention to it, he said.
“While I was driving up to Lake George I started getting a lump on my wrist,” he said. The lump looked like a golf ball and started turning black.
Mr. Schneider used a can of soda as an ice pack, but didn’t get the lump looked at. He went swimming too, which he later found out promoted the circulation of the spider venom throughout his body. Then two long, black streaks started going up his arm, close to his shoulder. He was scheduled to give kayak lessons on the lake before breakfast and conference programming started, but he was convinced to go to the hospital instead.
A dermatologist at the Glen Falls Hospital emergency room told Mr. Schneider he had the classic symptoms of a brown recluse bite, and he was put on intravenous antibiotics. “They told me I would probably need a skin graph, which turned out not to be the case,” he said.
Mr. Schneider was admitted to the hospital and the staff there wanted him to stay, but after one night he insisted on leaving. He was only discharged after signing a sworn statement that he would seek immediate medical care when he got back to Long Island. He did, and was out of work for a week.
Though Ms. Quinn, the Constantinos and Mr. Schneider would testify to brown recluse’s existence on Long Island, some experts disagree.
“We really haven’t seen them here, and in the only cases I’ve heard about they may have been brought up from the south,” said Dan Gilrein, an entomologist at the Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, adding that the spiders couldn’t winter outdoors on Long Island.
“It’s all been mostly heresy—anecdotal reports—but nothing confirmed by samples that have crossed my desk or my diagnostic lab,” Dr. Gilrein said.
Scott Campbell, the lab director of the Arthropod-Borne Disease Laboratory of the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, said it’s important to know that all spiders have venom, not just brown recluses and black widows.
“Any spider bite can produce a reaction just like a bee sting,” he said, and sensitivities to a bite will differ from person to person.
But when people see a big, ugly, brown spider, he said, they erroneously assume it’s a brown recluse. Also, he added, infected skin lesions can be mistaken for bites.
Dr. Campbell participated in a national spider study by Rick Vetter of the Department of Entomology at the University of California Riverside. No one sent Dr. Vetter a brown recluse that was living outside of the habitat range accepted by the entomologist community, Dr. Campbell said. Three dozen spider specimens found in Suffolk County were sent in, but not a single one was a brown recluse, he said. And it wasn’t a couple species of spider commonly mistaken, but a variety. “I’ve gotten spiders that don’t even look like brown recluse,” he said.
And even if they did live on Long Island, Dr. Campbell said, the likelihood of getting bit is very low. Brown recluse won’t bite someone who is sitting and watching television, but they will get aggressive if disturbed he noted.
“You don’t want to put your foot in a boot that has been sitting for a while because there could be a spider sitting in that boot,” he explained.
These days, Ms. Quinn said she’s very careful when she turns over stones and retrieves logs from a woodpile.
Spring-cleaners should be aware of spiders, but not worried, as long as they take some precautions such as wearing non-spider inhabited gloves before digging around, Mr. Campbell advised.
What really concerns him, Mr. Campbell said, are mice urine and feces, which can be kicked up when swept around. Cleaning should be done in a well-ventilated area, and surfaces should be wet down first with a diluted bleach-solution, so as to prevent contraction of a disease such as hantavirus.