MSU’s ‘Bug Man’ knows where brown recluse spiders have been hiding in Michigan

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

EAST LANSING, MI – When news spread this week that brown recluse spiders were found in a woman’s garage in Genesee County, it had people from Escanaba to Toledo peeking into their home’s dark corners and shaking out their shoes as a precaution.

But if there was one guy who was unflappable about warmth-loving and possibly dangerous spiders being found in a cold spot in Michigan, it was Howard Russell, the MSU entomologist who’d confirmed the discovery.

According to our media partners at Mlive, for more than three decades, Russell has been checking samples – both alive and dead – of things most people would just as soon swat away – or run screaming from.

He’s also documented eight cases of brown recluse spiders found in Michigan in the last decade, including the newest one this year in Davison, where people moving plastic bins in an unheated garage found them and snapped a few pictures.

Like many spiders and insects needing to be identified and documented, they come into Michigan State University’s Diagnostic Services in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences.

Some brown recluse spiders have arrived still alive, clambering inside an empty olive jar in one case. Others are sent to Russell as photographs.

He’s not fazed at the myriad ways spiders and insects arrive in his office. On average, the center sees 1,700 samples each year.

“Most samples are photographs,” Russell said. “But I get stuff wadded up in Kleenex all the time. I’ve had samples arrive in little coffins with “RIP” on the lid. I get them mashed up in envelopes and sent through the mail. Of course, it arrives here as dust.

“If you can imagine how someone might send or submit a sample, then I’ve gotten it that way.”

And Russell is clear on what he knows about brown recluses in Michigan: While there have been documented breeding populations of these spiders in spots across the state, getting bit by one is not something most people have to worry about.

“I think most people in the state of Michigan – as long as they stay in Michigan – won’t come within 100 yards of a recluse spider in their lifetime,” Russell said.

MISTAKEN IDENTITY?

Brown recluse spiders have a dangerous reputation because their bites can sometimes cause an area of soft tissue around the bite to die. This area of necrotic skin can sometimes be the size of a dime, or even a quarter.

But most bites heal quickly, with less than 10 percent causing these types of lesions, according to Russell and medical sources.

And while many people claim to have been bitten by a brown recluse, it may be mistaken identity in a lot of those cases.

“I really have my doubts unless the person has what bit them. That is really the only way to confirm what actually caused that bite,” Russell said.

“I have had thousands of spiders submitted over the years that people are absolutely certain were recluse spiders, and they were not recluse spiders.”

Other spiders in Michigan whose festering bites might be confused with a brown recluse: the yellow sac spider and the false widow.

Of the 1,000 species of spiders roaming Michigan, there are only three Russell would classify as possibly dangerous. Those are the northern widow, the false widow and the yellow sac spiders. And in rare cases, the recluse spiders who have made their way here.

A BITE, THEN HIS FOOT TURNED BLACK

Ron Petter was walking barefoot on the rocks around his outdoor pool when something bit him on the toe in 2009. The Owosso man went to a local hospital, and was sent home with orders to soak his foot in hot water. The next day, his family physician took a look at it and told him he’d been bit by a spider.

“My foot was turning black,” remembers Petter, who said he checked into Genesys Hospital in Holly a day later. Doctors kept him there for a week. They told him he’d been bitten by a brown recluse spider, and that two other patients in the hospital had also been bitten. Once he had the right antibiotics, his condition improved.

Petter said he later tried to get his county health department and local extension service to acknowledge there was a problem with recluse spiders being in the area, but to no avail.

“They said there were not brown recluses in Michigan. But the people know that they are here,” he said.

Once home from the hospital, Petter said he sprayed his entire two-acre yard with insecticide.

It is unclear how many people have reported possible brown recluse spider bites to health officials in Michigan. They are not known to be aggressive.

In 2014, a nurse who lived in Tustin died days after reportedly being bitten on the foot by a recluse spider, her family said.

THESE SPIDERS ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE HERE

Brown recluse spiders primarily live in the southern states, and are not native to Michigan. Russell said he used to be fairly certain the only way recluses could turn up in Michigan is if they’d hitched their way on someone’s belongings after a trip from a warmer state.

But his opinion began to change in 2009, when two people sent him brown recluse spiders they’d found in the state – and their circumstances had no connection to recent trips to, or deliveries from, warmer climates.

One spider was found in a commercial building in Lansing. The other was found by a 15-year-old girl in a home near Allen, in Hillsdale County.

Then in 2011, more recluses were collected from a home on the southern outskirts of Flint. “The family who lives in the home reports that they have found these guys all over the house and in all different sizes,” Russell wrote at the time.

In all three of those sites, people reported seeing more than one spider.

The recluse finds continued. In 2015, they were spotted in a Tecumseh family’s home in Lenawee County. The homeowner believed they may have hitched a ride on some new kitchen cabinets.

In 2016, a brown recluse was found living in a campus building at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

This year’s find was in the garage in Davison, where multiple spiders are believed to have overwintered, despite the cold temperatures.

In all of these cases, Russell says it’s difficult to know if the spiders were eradicated

“It’s my understanding that they are difficult to get rid of. They are, as their name suggests, reclusive, and they hang out in areas that aren’t really visited all that much.

“There may be a hidden population that may not be out, and so can’t be killed.”

If you think you’ve found a recluse spider and you’ve got a picture of it, Russell says you can email it to him and he’ll take a look. It should include an in-focus picture of the spider’s back. Send the photos to bugman@msu.edu.

This article was first seen on Mlive.com.

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