Time to make good on one last bit of unfinished business on the blog, or my explanation of a bit of a screw-up on a story about the Brown Recluse spider.
Better late than never, I hope.
A few months ago I published a story about a three-day wilderness-skills workshop in and around High Park with Sticks and Stones Wilderness School.
We covered lots of topics, including making fire with a bow drill kit, tracking, snares and edible plants. I focused on something we built as a group: a debris hut, or a structure made from leaves and sticks or whatever you can gather from the forest floor.
When you scoop up debris, you are probably going to get some insects with it, including spiders. The idea of bunking down with perhaps hundreds of wee, eight-legged insects that might find their ways into my ears or nostrils sent a bit of a chill through me.
Calming my fears was a two-part process;
1. Our instructor, Skeet Sutherland, explained "smudging," the process of placing hot coals on top of sage or green conifer needles in a container to create smoke. You place the smoking container inside and the insects run for the hills.
2. Sutherland also explained, we are quite lucky in Ontario because our venomous-insect population is quite low. He identified two potential candidates that could (the key word here is "could") cause harm -- the black widow and the brown recluse -- and I typed it up.
The paragraph below is the way it appeared in the paper. The full story is here.
“Ontario is not home to a lot of dangerous spiders so the majority of tenants living inside our debris hut are likely harmless, Sutherland reassured. The worst are the Brown Recluse, that can cause the tissue surrounding the bitten area to die, and Black Widows; while bites are fairly rare they can cause feverish symptoms and can be fatal for young, sick or elderly people.”
The story prompted swift challenges from entomologists who said there was no evidence of Brown Recluse spiders living or making their home in Ontario.
Here is part of an email from Antonia Guidotti, entomology technician in the Department of Natural History at the Royal Ontario Museum.
"There are doctors that claim a patient has been 'bitten' by a Brown Recluse but there has never been a case in Ontario were a spider was caught and identified as a Brown Recluse. The so-called 'bites' are more likely serious bacterial infections."
I called Sutherland, he called the entomologists, did some additional research, and we connected again on the phone this week.
Straight out of the gate he said the entomologists are correct. There is no evidence of breeding populations in Ontario.
His said his concern was the potential for the Brown Recluse to travel, or hitch a ride on clothing, in cargo or some other method from its home in the central United States to Ontario.
“The nature of this insect is that it likes to spend a lot of its time in human cultured environments. Often times you will find it in the attic or old dusty pile of blankets in the basement,” he said.
“I guess what we were trying to get through in the article is there is a slight potential for these things,” said Sutherland. “But really when it comes down to it there is very little to worry about in Ontario which is really a sigh of relief for so many different people.”
Here is where I have to fess up and say I oversimplified the bit about the spiders ( I got a bit stuck on the dimensions of the debris hut and was on deadline) and as a result the article did not represent the diversity of our province, how insects move from place to place, and what my instructor understands about spiders and where they make their homes.
That was rightly pointed out by dedicated spider and insect lovers. As mentioned in my previous note, next time I tackle anything as complicated and interesting as spiders and where they live, love and have thousands of babies I promise to get it right.
Sutherland capped off the conversation by saying that spotting a Brown Recluse spider in Ontario is about as likely as seeing a mountain lion.
I actually might really enjoy seeing a mountain lion. A spider that rots your flesh with a necrotic bite, not so much.