Spider season's web of lies

If spiders were capable of experiencing emotion, they would deem autumn the bittersweet season. After a summer of gorging on bugs, autumn is when they are the biggest and sexiest they will ever be. Autumn is when they find a mate, make spider whoopee ... and die.

orb weaver-C.L. Hogue@csun.jpgHalloween builds the spider brand this month, but spiders creep us out even in the merry month of May.

We don't love spiders, but we should. They eat insects that destroy things we cultivate. They make a product--silk--that has applications in wound care, fishing, construction, armaments and their repellants, violin manufacture ...

Jan Kempf loves spiders. She has a master's degree in environmental and occupational health, but her continuing education is spiders. As a 10-year volunteer for the L.A. County Natural History Museum's entomology department, she identifies and classifies members of the museum's spider collection, building its research database.

She can gee-whiz Halloween partiers with facts like:

  • Spiders live everywhere except Antarctica and in the ocean; some even live in ice, and hibernate.
  • Spider taxonomy is complicated. They're classified by the orientation of the fangs--some, like tarantulas, raise their fangs in parallel and strike down; others open their fangs sideways and pinch them closed. They're classified by whether they make webs or hunt and wander. Some build webs and wander. Most spiders have eight eyes, but some have two, four, six or none.
  • All spiders produce silk (some produce several kinds), but only females spin webs. Silk is used not only for capturing food, but for shelter, to house egg sacs and for the draglines that spook the hell out of you when they drop from the patio overhang in your face. Some wandering females trail silk for seduction, like Rapunzel and her come-hither hair.
  • Daddy longlegs aren't really spiders, they're opiliones, which are members of the arachnid class, but have only one body part. They're similar to cellar spiders, which are slimmer and, like all spiders, have both an abdomen and a cephalothorax. A cellar spider can kill a black widow, but it won't hurt you.
  • Most spiders have an annual life cycle, although some might live a couple years. Females are larger than males, which die immediately after mating. Females live until laying their eggs and securing the egg sac in a web, a leaf, under your chaise longue.
  • All spiders have venom except for one family (Uloboridae). All spiders are capable of biting, but many have fangs too small to penetrate human skin.

Like many local spider scientists, Kempf is exasperated about the general public's fear, loathing and ignorance of our eight-legged neighbors. With as many as 500,000 spiders per acre living in our midst, with 175 distinct species submitted by the public to the Natural History Museum's 2002 L.A. spider survey, you'd think common sense would tell people that spiders aren't nearly as dangerous as kids skateboarding down the sidewalk plugged into their iPods. You're more likely to be injured walking the dog than you are by a spider bite.
black widow-J.N. Hogue@csun.jpg

"If you think you've been bitten and didn't see it, it's not fair to blame a spider [for a wound]--it was probably something else," Kempf said. "Doctors have a bad habit of diagnosing anything as a brown recluse bite even though there are none in L.A."

Don't get Rick Vetter started on the brown recluse spider. If anybody deserves the moniker Spiderman it is he. Recently retired as a staff research associate at UC Riverside's entomology department, Vetter volunteers in the lab and continues to research and write scientific papers. He does not mince words in either print or conversation about spider misconceptions, especially the bone-headed notion that L.A. is home to the dangerous brown recluse, which he has called "the Richard Jewell of the spider world."

Like the innocent security guard widely suspected of the bombing in Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 summer Olympics, the brown recluse has nothing to do with causing grief in L.A. Unlike Jewell, it is a dangerous critter, but it doesn't live here, preferring the Midwest and South. There might be isolated sightings, and a relative lives in the desert, but if you're bitten by a spider in L.A., it wasn't a brown recluse.

Unless you roll over in bed onto a yellow sac spider (likes to wander around your house and garden), or otherwise smoosh some other eight-legger, you're not likely to get bitten unless you try. Spiders bite as a last ditch effort--essentially, they're wimps who can't stand the sight of you.

One of Vetter's missions is to educate the medical community about what is and isn't a spider bite. He wishes that people who send him spider photos and reports would do their homework. "You should see the crap people send me--it's like Bigfoot."

Although a bite can hurt, there's only one L.A. spider whose venom is dangerous--the female black widow. (The brown widow, a fairly new denizen of L.A., also can envenomate humans and make them sick, but the power of the toxin is uncertain.) She lives everywhere; you don't want to know how many are hiding in your closet, garage or trash bin. But in more than 30 years of studying spiders, Vetter said he hears of only two or three black widow bites a year. In the whole U.S. That doesn't mean more people aren't getting bitten, it means they're not cause for particular alarm.

The bite itself is not particularly painful, but the neurotoxic venom has the potential to cause extreme abdominal or chest pain, excessive sweating, nausea, cramps and elevated blood pressure. Widow bites can make you sick for weeks, but treatment in the ER can alleviate the symptoms.

Dr. Sean Bush, a venom expert in emergency medicine at Loma Linda University Medical Center, sees a lot of black widow bites this month because, as a venom specialty facility, Loma Linda is the go-to ER when poisonous animals bite. Bush has seen as many as three widow bites in a single day, always in October. He's seen as many as 24 in a year.

Bush is excited this month not because people in pain are writhing around his ER, but because Loma Linda is part of a national antivenin trial in its final phase. There is one commercially available black widow antivenin, but if the experimental serum passes FDA muster it could be on the market in time for next year's spider season.

If a wound demonstrates an antibacterial reaction--say, it's oozing pus--it's not the result of a spider bite. Spiders are not vectors for bacterial or viral infection. Too many people, the scientists say, might be walking around with a staph infection or Lyme disease or poison oak that should be treated but are not because they blame a spider. A brown recluse bite becomes necrotic, but not a black widow's. In L.A., as Bush noted, "The uglier the wound, the less likely it's a spider bite."

Although they can make you wish you were dead, black widow bites are almost never fatal, and bite victims recover fully. Vetter and Bush can count on one hand, with fingers to spare, the documented cases of death by widow. There is one documented death from the effects of the antivenin, although that fatality might have been due to multiple medical allergies and/or the antivenin being administered too quickly rather than to an allergic response to the serum.

Morphine and valium can relieve symptoms, but that treatment can take days and be fraught with complications, especially for little kids and people with chronic health issues. Recovering from a bite is much easier with a shot of antivenin, said Dr. Cyrus Rangan, a toxicologist and assistant medical director of the California Poison Control System. Antivenin begins to alleviate the symptoms usually within about 30 minutes, and most ERs in L.A. have a vial or can get one locally. We like antivenin.

So does Chuck Kristensen. As the owner of Spider Pharm in Arizona, his days are spent in the company of 50,000 arachnids, as many as 30,000 of which are black widows. Antivenin is derived from spider venom, which somebody has to harvest. That would be Kristensen.

Black widows are average-sized spiders, but they're small milking subjects. In a process he developed, after anesthetizing a spider with carbon dioxide, Kristensen confines it within tweezers under a microscope and uses electric stimulation to express venom from its fangs. He sells it to research facilities, $125 for 5 microliters, which might represent the venom from 50 western black widow spiders.
milking bw venom-Chuck Kristensen-Spider Pharm.jpg

Kristensen's spiders eventually wake up, but commercial antivenin manufacturers collect venom by extracting it directly from the spider's gland, which kills it.

Has he ever been bitten? "Oh yeah. But I've never gotten seriously ill," he said.

Neither will you if you respect the reclusive nature of the widow. Should you find one crawling up your leg as the widows peak this month, "Brush it, don't crush it," Bush advised. She'll run off like the scaredy cat she is.

Then go outside and celebrate the beauty of the orb weaver, the speed and visual acuity of the jumper, the chameleonic ability of the crab. And if you still fear spiders because they look so creepy, one question: Have you ever seen a hairless Chihuahua?

Photos, from top: Orb weaver/C.L. Hogue, Cal State Northridge; Black widow/J.N. Hogue, Cal State Northridge; Black widow/Chuck Kristensen, Spider Pharm


More by Ellen Alperstein:
Magic mountain
The uneven playing field of workers' compensation
Horsing around in Del Mar
Two Jews walk into a Catskills hotel...
Continuing education at the county fair
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