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September 1997

Insect Stings: What’s Bugging You?

If the thought of a spider bite or bee sting makes your skin crawl, then preventing a painful encounter is the key.

Cries from Susan’s tent brought a rush of concerned friends to her side. They found the young woman lying in a fetal position, screaming in pain, and complaining of agonizing cramps in her abdomen and lower back. Her pulse grew fast and weak and her fever rose. She was drenched in sweat when the vomiting started. Fearing appendicitis or some life-threatening gastrointestinal illness, the group decided to cut the trip short and

carry their ailing friend back to the trailhead for a speedy drive to the nearest hospital.

The emergency room doctor discovered a red, hardened bump on Susan’s right lower leg: a spider bite, probably from a black widow. Exactly when the bite occurred was not known, since black widow envenomations cause no initial pain. That comes later. Although Susan made a full recovery, she came away from the experience with a distinct fear and loathing for all little critters that bite and sting.

Our planet is full of creepers and crawlers to dislike. Within the class arachnida there are more than 60,000 kinds of eight-legged creatures, including 30,000 species of spiders. In prime habitat areas, experts estimate the number of scurrying arachnids may run as high as 265,000 per acre. There are 2,700 species of snakes slithering around. The order hymenoptera, which includes bees and their winged relatives, claims around 3,500 different insects.

The unpopularity of these lowly creatures generally arises from the fact that most are equipped with fangs or stingers and have the ability to inject poison into their victims. It’s a survival mechanism they use to feed and protect themselves in the competitive animal kingdom. Unfortunately, they occasionally come crosswise with humans, and the result can be quite painful and, in rare instances, even fatal.

Because it’s better to know how to recognize and deal with these critters, instead of merely disliking them, here’s a look at some of the ones you’re most likely to encounter while wandering through the backcountry.


The bad news is that almost all spiders on the planet carry venom, and they inject it with piercing fangs. The good news is that only a few dozen species are harmful to humans, either because the spiders inject too little venom or because their fangs cannot penetrate human skin. Of those that can do you harm, one of the most venomous is the female black widow, a tiny, common spider that packs more poison in every drop of venom than any other creature in North America. She’s about an inch in length and is easily identified by the hourglass mark on her abdomen. You’re likely to find her secreting her tattered web under logs and large pieces of bark, in stone crevices, in trash heaps and outbuildings, and deep in clumps of heavy vegetation. Rarely aggressive, she may be uncharacteristically defensive during spring mating and egg-tending season.

Humans almost never feel the bite, although some have reported immediate sharp pain. There may be little or no redness and swelling at first, but a small, red, slightly hard bump may form later. Although, as in Susan’s case, you may feel like you’re going to die, such a fate is rare. Fortunately, the black widow’s drop of poison is tiny, and the spider claims an average of only two to four people a year in the United States. The victims are almost always the very young, the very old, or the very allergic.

The bite of the black widow should, nevertheless, be taken very seriously. Getting someone who’s been bitten to the nearest medical facility is the most prudent course of action, just in case complications arise. Treatment usually includes painkillers and 8 to 12 hours of observation. Youngsters and seniors may be admitted for longer. Antivenin is used when needed.

While its name may not sound as forbidding as the infamous black widow, the solitude-seeking recluse (a.k.a. fiddleback) spider poses as much, if not more of a risk to humans. The recluse is generally pale brown to reddish in color, a quarter to a half inch in length, has long slender legs, and the front portion of its body is shaped like a violin. Unlike the black widow, the recluse is dangerous no matter if it’s male or female.

The recluse prefers the South and southern Midwest, but can be found throughout the United States. It doesn’t mind the company of humans, and it sets up housekeeping underneath furniture, within hanging curtains, and in the shadowed corners of closets. The recluse also resides in plentiful numbers in forests across America, hiding during daylight hours beneath rocks, dead logs, and pieces of bark. It attacks more readily in the warmer months, usually at night, and only when disturbed.

Like most spiders, the bite of the recluse is often painless, but within 1 to 5 hours, a painful red blister appears where the relatively dull fangs did their damage. Watch for the characteristic “bull’s-eye” lesion to develop-a bluish circle around the blister with a red circle around that. Often the lesion heals without a trace after a week or two, but sometimes it spreads irregularly when an enzyme in the spider’s venom destroys the cells of the victim’s skin and subcutaneous fat. This ulcerous tissue heals slowly and leaves a lasting scar. Death has occurred in children when recluse venom caused fatal complications in the circulatory system.

Initially, there is little you can do for a spider bite victim other than calming him and applying cold to the bite site to reduce pain. The best treatment is prevention, so look before poking your hands into dark places. Set up camp and gather firewood (if allowed) while there’s still plenty of light. When you move around after dark, wear boots and use a flashlight. And always look in your boots before putting them on in the morning.

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